I was lucky enough too grab myself an advanced preview screening of this film. I wasn’t particularly sure what to expect. Saying that the Shymalonianman is a controversial director is like saying Genghis Khan was well-known in his time. The man is the very definition of hit and miss. The Sense Sixth and Unbreakable are some of the best films around. And then we got…what we’ve gotten.
So it gives me a lot of pleasure to say that M. Night is back in the saddle and has directed his best film in a long, long time. This film isn’t just about mental illness and madness: it’s about monsters and what monstrous events have the potential to do.
It’s interesting that this is the film that could be his turnaround, because so many things could go wrong with it. A psycho kidnaps three girls and holds them hostage. in his dungeon. But looking at it that way would be disingenuous. This particular psychopath has twenty-three different personalities, and these girls are far from your typical damsel in distress horror-flick victims.
Obviously James McAvoy stole the show – that tends to happen when you’re playing a psychopath with twenty-three different fragmented personalities. He doesn’t act these characters, he lives these characters and for the set time fits into their personalities like a glove. The way he assumes the role of a brain-damaged nine year old, a strict English granny, a Brookyln punk and a deranged killer and flipping between them all at the same time is bordering on scary. It’s difficult enough to play one character with one personality. McAvoy manages with 23. Not all of them are portrayed on-screen, but the ones you do see make you believe he could pull it off if he wanted to.
The other actresses also manage to pull their own weight. It’s Anya Taylor-Joy who truly shines amoung the three and the perverted chemistry between her character of Casey and whatever personality is present in Kevin’s body is wrought with tension at some times and sickeningly funny at times.
Not so amusing are the long, extended info-dumps the film insists on drowning us in. The scenes with Kevin’s doctor deal with a barrel full of heavy handed dialogue and dull exposition that does nothing but to deliver a message to the audience, not the other characters. This would be fine in a science-fiction or fantasy flick, but this is a horror-thriller: a genre that is most the most part supposed to be nuanced and quick to strike. Instead Betty Buckley’s character becomes a mouth-piece to explain Kevin’s illnesses and medical history.
They don’t even pretend to be otherwise – she spends several minutes giving an academic lecture over Skype about the issue, quite literally talking into the camera. It ripped me out of the scene, but thankfully not out of the film. There’s a few moments that could be taken as funny, but it’s almost unintentional on M. Night’s part. Except one, of course. A line dropped by Mr. McAvoy as he plays a CD of an instrumental Chinese soundtrack: “I find Asian-people’s music to be so good for detestation”. The audience cracked up at that point. Shyamalan just could not help himself (speaking of which: the man himself as a cameo in the film because of course he does).
The rest of the film – especially the scenes in Kevin’s hideout are drenched in tension and taut as guitar strings. Because of the split personalities you literally never knew what was going to come next or what Kevin would do or how he would react. The ways that Casey would find ways to work around him without stepping over the line and “triggering” him where phenomenal. The pacing was smooth and relentlessly fast, eslacting to a violent, heart-pounding crescendo which went places I did not expect it to go.
Ultimately this is as much of a film about Casey as it is about Kevin and give her enough agency to help her rise above the dumb blonde chick trope and turns her into a feasible protagonist more than capable of fighting back. The multiple flash-back sequences add necessary context and never feel intrusive. It could have easily just been a film about escaping a deranged psycho, but it’s subtext and M. Night’s trademark plot twist at the end adds several layers of subtext that enriches the narrative while ratcheting up the tension three fold.
I hate to make the comparison, but it the film channels a strong video-game vibe. Titles like Outlast and even The Evil Within come to mind, the former especially with one standout shot that I won’t spoil for you. The brilliant claustrophobic cinematography plays a huge role in making this happen. The narrow corridors and barricaded rooms and caged pathways are made so feel so tight and dark that it almost feels like you’re choking. Considering how bleak the narrative and it’s subtext gets, it’s very suitable. Speaking of which: prepare for this film to be very controversial, and not just because it’s M. Night. It’s easy enough to guess what for – since it’s already been getting flak without it even being released yet. Having seen it myself in full I don’t think they hold any water at all, but I’ll wait to discover what the wider audience has to say.
The suspense could easily have been even more ramped up if the scenes with Kevin’s doctor were given the same tension and sense of growing dread. But Shyamalan choose to polish his characters and narrative subtext at the cost of diluting the atmosphere. It enhances the narrative and truly Shyamalanian classic ending, but these scenes did come across as dragging the tension down, albeit in a necessary way. The man knows exactly when to deliver his information, he just doesn’t know how to do it.
Is it better than The Six Sense, or even Unbreakable? No, of course not. But it’s not far behind, and soars above the trash that he’s been delivering in the last few years. I suspect I’ll keep finding new gems and hidden plot-points on my next viewings. It’s the quiet, cataclysmic ending that truly nails this film and encapsulates the fringed-supernatural excellent that the man is known for. I won’t spoil it other than saying it’s brilliant and you need to see it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a true return to form for M. Night Shyamalan and he should be immensely proud.
Oh, and please stay for the after-credits. Shyamalan pulled a Marvel, and I’m not even joking. If you’ve seen one of his previous films, you’ll know what I mean.