When M. Night Shyamalan released a little movie called The Sixth Sense in the summer of 1999, audiences and critics alike were pretty much universal in their praise for this new fresh-faced director. Most called him a breath of fresh air, some even called him “the new Alfred Hitchcock” as he used a number of Hitchcockian filmmaking techniques in that particular movie and also with the way in which he built suspense in scenes along with the way he inserted himself into his own movies in brief cameos. To follow that up, he made Unbreakable, which wasn’t nearly as well-received but still got solid reviews from some critics and became a fan favourite. Signs was a little better in terms of critics but then he completely fell off the map with a slew of career misses and flops, which was pretty much non-stop until his minor hit The Visit last year.
This film concerns the story of Kevin Wendell (James McAvoy), a young thirtysomething man who has developed 23 different personalities as a result of some childhood trauma he previously suffered. One day, Kevin kidnaps three girls: the quiet but mentally tough Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends who pity her more than actually value any kind of friendship with her, Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson). Kevin constantly lapses in and out of his multiple personalities while dealing with the girls which range from the stern obsessive-compulsive Dennis to a 9-year old boy named Hedwig to the flamboyant Barry to the matriarchal figure Patricia, all of whom vary in degrees of dangerousness.
Much like The Visit last year, I am pleasantly surprised with this movie, which is a full return to form for Shyamalan. I don’t know if giving him complete free reign led to some of his more questionable films or if it was the opposite of having the studio interfere far too frequently. Either way, the problem seems to have been fixed at least for the time being because this is a very smart, taut psychological thriller. The idea of multiple personalities has been done before but Shyamalan takes it in a unique direction and as the film unfolds, you slowly learn more about Kevin’s illness and some of his backstory, creating context for the situation. The nice thing about the movie is its deliberate pace and style as it doesn’t try to throw everything at you at once but rather it slowly unwinds the fabric of the story and reveals more at the appropriate moments. Obviously it would be hard to reveal too many plot details so I will do my best to refrain from going into it too much. It truly is one of those films that you want to be in the dark about as much as possible.
Let’s talk about the acting in this film because James McAvoy is a revelation. Obviously, anyone who knows his work already knows that the man is a very talented thespian but he goes above and beyond in this one, creating the portrait of a very troubled individual. McAvoy must act out several different personalities and does so with the flick of a switch sometimes. Occasionally he even makes us laugh especially when he is in his childlike personality. James is able to do a very convincing child performance and I also especially liked him as the meticulous Patricia. This is an early standout in terms of performances this year. Even though McAvoy clearly is the star of the film, he is not the only one who brings a great performance to the table. Betty Buckley plays his psychiatrist who sees his multiple personalities not necessarily as being something solely in his head but also possibly existing as completely different people with their own set of allergies, medications, etc. that somehow don’t affect the other personas. Whether this is true or not is something that this film answers but Buckley herself gives a terrific, warm performance that gives the movie a heart where it most definitely needs one. Anya Taylor-Joy stands out among the three girls with a terrfic focused performance and some flashbacks that show her backstory really gives her character more depth than you might expect. After her solid performances in movies like the otherwise forgettable Morgan and the excellent period drama The Witch, she is starting to make a real impact in films like this with her presence and I can only hope she continues to find success. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are both fine and do well with what they have but they definitely take a backseat to Anya’s lead performance.
The way in which the film is shot is extraordinary and a return to form for the director as well. The opening scene, for instance, is a long shot of the interior of a car with our three females in question while Kevin slowly knocks out the driver and sits in the car to take over his seat. In fact, that whole kidnapping scene is very early on as the film immediately jumps into the main story and it is incredibly tense. There are also a lot of shots of people looking through cracks in the wall and peepholes, which creates an overwhelming feeling of isolation and a powerless environment for our three protagonists. Every time Kevin enters the room where they are being held captive, it’s always a complete mystery as to who he will become in that moment.
There is some amazing camera work from Shyamalan’s cinematographer, some terrific writing and story development, off-the-wall acting especially from McAvoy and just a great overall movie. It will probably end up being the best release of January by far.
Oh, and once you see the title flash on-screen at the end, don’t leave. There’s a little scene afterwards that you won’t want to miss.
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)