Over the course of his career, M. Night Shyamalan has earned a certain reputation as a filmmaker. He’s the guy with the twist endings, every goddamned time, right? When his name appears on a film, wondering “what’s the twist?” is practically a Pavlovian response. So it’s no surprise that his latest, the psychological horror joint Split, attempts to pull off a last-minute shock-a-roo.
To be fair, the twist in Split isn’t the one I scribbled down in a notebook two minutes in and spent the rest of the movie praying I was wrong about. So that was nice. It is, however, one that’s not particularly surprising and one that most of the trailers allude to (as does one of the posters). So, if you don’t want the movie to tip its hand to you, go in as blind as possible, which is good advice for pretty much every movie.
Three young girls—the popular friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), the weird, sullen, dark-haired loser they’re momentarily compelled to hang out with—are kidnapped out of a mall parking lot and wake up trapped in a kind of underground industrial maze. Their abductor, Kevin (James McAvoy), suffers from dissociative identity disorder and hosts no less than 23 distinct personalities. By turns he’s a straight-laced, OCD afflicted possible molester; a stern, schoolmarm-esque woman; a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig; and others.
Say what you will about Shyamalan’s narrative proclivities, but the man is a phenomenal mechanical filmmaker. Even working for the second consecutive time with low-budget horror factory Blumhouse—last time out they teamed up for The Visit—Shyamalan’s shot construction; use of depth of field, light, shadow, and color; and camera movements are measured and meticulous. He falls into the category of technically marvelous cinematic crafter who could use parameters to curb some consistent issues on the story front.
Unfortunately, in the case of Split, it’s all for naught. The set up is relatively simple: the young women are trapped and in peril. There’s an inherent tension and suspense, with an intriguing tweak the formula. Flashbacks reveal that Casey has wounds of her own, and the film briefly attempts to explore the impact of trauma, though it leaves this thread dangling for both Casey and Kevin. Yet none of this ever amounts to much.
The side story with psychologist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, Carrie) attempting to argue that maybe Kevin’s affliction is more akin to superpowers than a disorder, is largely unnecessary. Split feels rushed and half-baked, once again using mental illness as a boogeyman, and never hits its full potential. It’s never that tense, it’s never that suspenseful, it’s never as shocking as it aims to be or thinks it is. There’s simply never enough to make the audience throw all-in.
Anya Taylor-Joy is passable, but asked to do little more than be morose and regularly terrified. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula basically exist so Shyamalan’s script can find excuses to show them in their underwear. Izzie Coffey, who plays five-year-old Casey, is off-kilter and creepy, and if she were to play the spooky kid in a supernatural horror movie, I’d watch.
In otherwise mediocre surroundings, James McAvoy stands out. Watching him bounce from personality to personality—even playing one playing another—leaves the impression that he might be legitimately unhinged. Perhaps over the top and affected at times, each personality (we never meet all 23, but there’s a wide cross section) has its own distinct voice, mannerisms, and quirks. In many cases, Shyamalan wisely lets a close-up linger as McAvoy slips from one identity to the next with the twitch of an eye or crease in the corner of his mouth. Split really serves as a showcase for what he can do. The rest is meh.
Like with The Visit, some people call Split a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. While I don’t agree, there are glimmers. And I wouldn’t hate to see him continue working in this low-budget horror realm. His best films—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable—always had an edge of exploitation and grindhouse aesthetics, and that meshes well with these surroundings. Here he has opportunities to indulge his weirdness and that could, could, lead to something fantastic. It’s not Split, but there’s a spark that could catch, and that spark is the reason I keep watching his movies hoping for a blaze. [Grade: C]