Director M. Night Shyamalan pretty much built his career on dramatic late-in-the-movie story twists. His latest, “Split,” features a pair of such twists, and one will likely make the difference between whether you enjoy the film or detest it.
“Split” tells the story of three teenage girls who are kidnapped by a man with multiple personalities. The perpetrator, played with headfirst enthusiasm by James McAvoy, accosts the girls on their way out of a birthday party and locks them up in a dingy basement that appears to be connected to some kind of industrial facility.
Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are best friends who have, up until this point, enjoyed wealthy, sheltered lives. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) was only invited to the party out of pity, but it quickly becomes clear that her rough edges will be the key to their survival. Flashbacks teach us, among other things, that Casey’s father has taught her to handle a shotgun.
Often in these kinds of movies, the director will keep our point of view rooted exclusively with the victim, but Shyamalan takes us outside the basement to learn about the perpetrator. McAvoy’s character, originally named Kevin, is splitting time between nearly two dozen separate personalities, and the kidnapping is the result of his two darkest personalities — an abusive tough guy named Dennis and an enabling female personality named Patricia — taking over.
Kevin has been meeting with a psychologist named Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who believes his personalities are more than a simple psychological disorder. In fact, she argues to her peers that Kevin and her other patients actually represent a kind of evolutionary human advancement.
This background fleshes out a pretty simple “How do we get out of this?” plot, as Casey and the other girls work against time to escape Kevin’s clutches. Dennis and Patricia keep warning the girls about the beast, a monster that is on the prowl and coming to get his captives soon.
The interesting thing about the first two-thirds of Shyamalan’s film is that, in spite of the creepy situation, it isn’t all that scary. By getting outside of Kevin’s dungeon and spending so much time learning about the perpetrator, “Split” diffuses a lot of its horror potential, and Shyamalan wastes no time letting us know how capable Casey is. It turns “Split” into a film that is almost more interesting than it is frightening, in spite of its decidedly nongraphic exploration of topics as lurid as kidnapping, abuse and even cannibalism. (Some audiences may object to Shyamalan’s treatment of subjects like abuse and mental illness.)
Things do get much more intense in the climactic third act, and a pair of late twists go a long way to explaining the method behind the director’s particular madness. But many moviegoers may still come away feeling unsatisfied by “Split’s” ending, especially if they aren’t familiar with Shyamalan’s previous work.
Regardless of how you feel about the ending, though, most will note a tour de force performance from McAvoy, who is often called to transition between characters on a dime and easily proves to be the highlight of the film. Taylor-Joy, who got her break in 2015’s horrifying “The Witch,” is more than capable against McAvoy as Casey.
Over the years, Shyamalan has taken a lot of flack for the increasing weirdness and decreasing quality of his films. In 2015, “The Visit” was a strong step back toward his horror genre strengths, and in spite of its imperfections, “Split” is a tribute to the director’s willingness to explore his own territory rather than settle for routine or formula.
“Split” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language; running time: 117 minutes.