Soundtrack review: Split (West Dylan Thordson – 2017)
“Split” is a 2016 American psychological horror film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The film stars James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley and follows a man with 23 different personalities who kidnaps three girls. This movie takes place in the same universe as my favorite Shyamalan story “Unbreakable” and I’m excited to see where he can take these stories next. Just as “Unbreakable” I loved this movie as a disturbing origin story for a superhero, even if this one is a villain. Now for the past 10 years this unique filmmaker has been mostly ridiculed and dismissed because of some movies that weren’t that well received and I’ve been waiting and hoping for his comeback.
As brilliant as his earlier films were and even when the quality dipped, one thing still stood out: the music of James Newton Howard. For me this director / composer pair is the one that’s produced the most stunning scores in the past 20 years and I was pained to hear that JNH didn’t write this one (probably of consequence of M Night Shyamalan’s recent fall from grace), especially since “Unbreakable” is my favorite James Newton Howard scores and one of my favorite scores of all times. This time the composer is a name I was not familiar with, West Dylan Thordson. I first heard the score in context and it worked perfectly and as the end twist of the movie got revealed, I was shocked and happy to hear the “Mr. Glass” theme from “Unbreakable” play over it and connect the two movies.
The terrifying growl of “Opening” puts me right back into the atmosphere of the movie. This cue is really nothing more than a constant, low key growl but it’s scary as hell and the subtle violin movement and the shadow of a girl’s sigh sound like the perfect trailer for the movie. A story dealing with multiple personalities needs variation in the music and the composer shows it when writing cues for the different characters: Barry gets a light piano motif that has no chance in front of the darkness while Dennis is depicted with a deep, dark and suspenseful theme that feels to me like a thick dark smoke that slowly chokes me.
For everybody who is used to the dark, melodic sensitivity of a James Newton Howard score for a Shyamalan movie this will be something very different; it’s not a negative comment since the movie is different and darker than anything he’s written and it needs this fragmented, psychotic and jumpy score. The music has quiet moments and distorted moments but there’s always a sense of unpredictability in it. Just like in the movie you never know when a new personality takes over there’s an element of surprise in every cue; as the various pieces of the main character fight for the light so the different instruments replace each other in the center of the score.
My favorite cues are the one dealing with Casey, the imprisoned girl. I like the warmth of the reflective piano piece “Casey tells the truth”; the cue is sad and I can relate to it. It bleeds into “Somebody save us” in which I can feel the quiet desperation of somebody losing hope and I relive in my mind the respective scene from the movie. This cue is the very definition of atmospheric music, when the atmosphere is that of being locked inside a room with no windows with various predators at the door.
When I was watching the movie I enjoyed the score a lot but I didn’t think it would work out of context. Turns out that the composer gave the music more than enough to stand on its own. Cues like “I know you want to tell me something”, “There are things that are hard to believe” and “I’m really sad you feel that way” are layered and meaningful and help me think and reflect with the quiet heaviness of a rainy day. This is film music that has a purpose outside of the movie as well and these are cues I will definitely come back to. They represent the center of this score, the moments when everything settles down and goes deeper.
If until now I used to consider the scores to an M Night Shyamalan movie as beautiful, dark and emotional with this new composer I can add “fascinating”. Not a lot of scores make me want to listen to it right away a couple of more times to discover more layers and more subtleties; this one did and it’s a testament to how good West Dylan Thordson is. In the same time disturbing and comforting in the Brian Eno-esque moments that culminate with “Rejoice”, “Split” is a winner. I can’t wait to hear more of his works and I would love for the third Unbreakable movie to be scored by both him and JNH. If M Night is reading this…Every hero needs his villain and a two faced story could benefit from two such different composers.
Cue rating: 85 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 25 / 56
Album excellence: 44%
Dr. Fletcher and the World
Casey Tells the Truth
Somebody Save Us
I Know You Want To Tell Me Something
There Are Things That Are Hard To Believe
I’m Really Sad You Feel This Way
Meeting the Others
Kevin Wendell Crumb