Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ Has Personality. O.K., Personalities. Lots.

At once solemn and preposterous, sinister and sentimental, efficient and overwrought, “Split” represents something of a return to form for its writer and director, M. Night Shyamalan. Or maybe I should say a return to formula. The movie, shot in and around Philadelphia, Mr. Shyamalan’s hometown, proceeds nimbly and with suave misdirection toward a pair of rug-pulling final twists that an attentive viewer will probably be able to anticipate. It’s not exactly a Choose Your Own Adventure, but you can opt either for the pleasure of surprise at the end or for the satisfaction of working out the puzzle as you go along.

Thanks to “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” back around the turn of the century, Mr. Shyamalan stands as a pioneer of spoiler-centric cinema. Like those movies, and like his later, lesser entertainments (“The Village”; “The Happening”), “Split” is all plot, an ingenious (and also ridiculous) conceit spun into an elegant ribbon of suspense. The less said about that plot, therefore, the better.

What I can safely divulge is that three teenage girls are kidnapped after a birthday party by a close-cropped guy named Dennis in a buttoned-up shirt. He is obsessed with cleanliness, and he sounds weirdly like John Turturro for a guy supposedly from Philly. In fact, Dennis is played by the soft-eyed, shape-shifting British actor James McAvoy, as are the other 23 personalities residing in the body of a guy who shares the surname of a famous (and famously odd) Philadelphia-born artist.

These “alters” — a word familiar to fans of the Showtime series “United States of Tara” and other pop-cultural treatments of a controversial and often poorly understood psychological disorder — are a diverse bunch. Some are male, some female, at least one is a child (named Hedwig) and another (named Barry) is a gay stereotype. What they want with their captives is not immediately clear. What Mr. Shyamalan wants is to strip them down to their underwear and to explore, exploit and occasionally subvert the basic tropes of the female-victim psycho-slasher movie.

One of the young women — a gothy, spooky misfit named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) — is singled out for special attention from the camera (though not, at least initially, from Dennis and his colleagues). Her fellow abductees, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), alternate between panic and defiance, but Casey counsels patience and watchfulness. Flashbacks to a hunting trip she took as a 5-year-old (Izzie Leigh Coffey) in the company of her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke) seem to explain the source of her survival skills, though it turns out that those memories have another, darker meaning as well.

Dennis and company, meanwhile — it’s mostly Barry, actually — consult with a therapist, Dr. Fletcher, who lives alone in a gracious, book-stuffed rowhouse and who is played by the wonderful Betty Buckley. Dr. Fletcher’s primary function is to explain the movie to the audience, foreshadowing the climax with her heterodox pseudo-scholarly theories about her many-sided patient, but Ms. Buckley also provides a dimension of warmth and wit that “Split” would be much duller and uglier without.

Mr. McAvoy, for his part, revels in the chance to use his sensitivity for evil, and to showboat his way through a series of appropriately overwrought characterizations. This breathlessly melodramatic thriller shouldn’t be taken as a psychological case study, any more than Mr. Shyamalan’s laughable “Lady in the Water” should be mined for clues about the habits of film critics.

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“Split” is lurid and ludicrous, and sometimes more than a little icky in its prurient, maudlin interest in the abuse of children. It’s also absorbing and sometimes slyly funny. Some years back — it’s startling to contemplate just how long ago it was — Mr. Shyamalan was puffed up into a cinematic visionary, hailed on the cover of Newsweek as “The Next Spielberg.” That hype (and his own self-aggrandizing tendencies) placed a disproportionate burden of significance on a filmmaker who has always been, at heart, a superior genre hack.

“Split” is being released by Universal under the Blumhouse label, a brand associated with unpretentious, clever, neo-traditionalist scare-pictures like “Insidious,” “Paranormal Activity” and “The Purge.” That seems like the right company for Mr. Shyamalan, and the January pre-Oscar doldrums may be the perfect moment to appreciate his skills. He is a master of mood, pace and limited perspective, moving the camera so that the thing you most desperately want to see — and are most afraid of seeing — remains teasingly out of sight.

He uses Ms. Taylor-Joy’s enormous dark eyes as a mirror and a lure for the audience’s attention. He delays the inevitable, inevitably deflationary revelations for as long as possible, minimizing the obligatory third-act flurry of chasing, fighting and bloodletting. And he sneaks in a few self-referential winks, including an allusion to his last really good movie that feels at once like a promise of better mischief to come and an implicit apology for all the disappointment in between.

James McAvoy plays a man with multiple personalities in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split.” Credit Universal Pictures


Expectations can be dangerous for filmmakers. Expectations can lead to audiences walking into theaters with their minds already made up, or with their hearts invested in the film they’ve imagined in advance. In that sense, it’s hard to think of any filmmaker that’s struggled more with expectations than M. Night Shyamalan. In 1999, he set a bar for a kind of highbrow supernatural thriller with The Sixth Sense, but his subsequent movies offered increasingly diminishing returns. Soon, audiences walking into a Shyamalan movie stopped expecting a 21st-century Hitchcock, and his name became synonymous with ill-advised cameos, self-indulgent pacing, and the cheapest of trick endings. (Not to mention killer plants and The Last Airbender. Let’s not forget those happened.)

But the writer-director’s past struggles have set the stage for what can now be safely called his cinematic comeback. His latest film, Split, is his second low-budget feature in a row. It focuses on three teenaged girls trapped by a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Like his 2015 feature The Visit, Split riffs on what’s become a common subgenre — the escape room movie. And without the expectations associated with big budgets or prestige drama, Shyamalan gleefully dives into the film’s grindhouse scares head-first. The results aren’t flawless, but Split is nevertheless a tense, exciting thriller anchored by a stunning performance by James McAvoy. And it may just restore Shyamalan fans’ belief in the power of the twist ending.

Yes, I realize it’s ironic to discuss the power of lowered expectations just before lauding a film’s ending, so let’s backtrack. Split begins with Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) leaving a birthday party with two classmates. All three are abducted by Dennis (McAvoy), who locks them up, warning them that something special is in store for them. The girls learn that Dennis is just one of many personalities exhibited by McAvoy’s character — supposedly there are 23 in total, with a 24th on the horizon. That final one is reverentially referred to as “The Beast,” and the girls will be the “sacred food” that brings him into existence… unless they can escape first.

Shyamalan has never bothered hiding his adoration of Hitchcock, and in Split, the references start with the movie’s Psycho-inspired title sequence. But like that film, Split only works as well as its villain, and McAvoy delivers one of the strongest performances in his career, shifting between the many personas tumbling around the antagonist’s brain. Dennis is an uptight OCD sufferer who telegraphs violence with his rigidly held body. Hedwig is a lisping 9-year-old who loves Kanye; Patricia, a prim English woman; Barry, a flamboyant fashion designer. The different personalities are thin stereotypes, at best — the brief descriptions above sum up their characters completely, and they’re only given enough nuance for the audience to register them as different entities. But the physicality of McAvoy’s performance binds them together into a single, menacing figure. It’s possible to tell which personality is in control simply by the way he squares his shoulders or cocks his hips, and the performance becomes even more deft in the moments when we see him shift through personalities one after the other, in a kind of persona roulette.

There’s no denying Split is problematic when seen in the larger context of cinema’s use of mental illness as a catch-all boogeyman, and since the first trailers debuted the film has drawn criticism from mental-health advocates and the LGBTQ community. It’s warranted critique, made even more potent given the caricatures that make up McAvoy’s many personalities. But to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just use the dissociative identity disorder that plagues his character as as easy shortcut, nor is he shown to be an unredeemable monster, either. This is a movie interested in psychological trauma and abuse, and the ways people cope in its aftermath. “The broken are more evolved,” McAvoy’s character says at one point — he screams variations on the idea throughout the film’s climax, just in case anybody wasn’t getting the point — and in the world of Split, that doesn’t just refer to villains. Taylor-Joy’s character struggles with it, too.

That idea doesn’t completely resonate as intended, because for all of the fun, games, and thrills Split throws at the audience, it never fully assembles a complete portrait of its heroes. Taylor-Joy was a revelation in The Witch, but here, she’s given a character who mostly just quietly stares, with wide, quivering eyes. The blank-slate passivity is partially due to the narrative sleight-of-hand Shyamalan employs; we learn about Casey’s backstory through a series of escalating flashbacks, and the payoff is predicated upon her character remaining a cipher for as long as possible. But the truth is, Shyamalan has never excelled at writing female characters, and despite his larger thematic aspirations, Casey and her friends often feel like props for the story, devoid of the kind of agency that made Mary Elizabeth Winstead such a stirring hero in the conceptually similar 10 Cloverfield Lane.

In spite of those weaknesses, Split works on a visceral level, just out of the sheer confidence in its execution. Shyamalan’s long, slow camera moves and bold framing are as effective as they’ve ever been, and toward the end of the film, he adopts a grittier, almost graphic-novel-inspired look. Taken with McAvoy’s performance, the shift creates an inescapably claustrophobic atmosphere where brutal violence seems just one small step away. This isn’t Shyamalan’s usual trick of ethereal whispers and unease; this is gut-churning tension, and the fact that he’s able to do so much when separated from the soaring budgets of his earlier films feels like proof that a smaller toolbox is precisely what he’s always needed.

And without spoiling anything about the final twist, Split isn’t built around a last-minute reversal or surprise. Its primary story is self-contained, and ends in a way that’s both satisfying and utterly in tune with its own genre heritage. But for the first time in a very long time, Shyamalan seems to know what audiences think of him, and what they might anticipate seeing when they buy their ticket. And he seems game to play along, taking advantage of that history to deploy red herrings and misdirections, hinting at a twist-eriffic payoff when he’s really interested in keeping things honest for once. Split is so straightforward that it feels like a twist of its own, and the film is all the stronger for it. Longtime fans of his work will still find something electric to talk about in Split’s final moments. But I don’t want to say anything more. I wouldn’t want to set any expectations.

Split Review: M. Night Shyamalan Continues His Comeback

Just a few years ago, some thought filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's career might be over. After a string of high-profile critical and commercial flops, like The Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, the filmmaker returned last year, teaming up with producer Jason Blum for the "smallest" film of his career, The Visit. The film pulled in $65.2 million domestically and $98.4 million worldwide, from just $5 million to produce, eight times the budget of his 1999 smash hit The Sixth Sense. Early next year, Shyamalan and Blum team up again for Split, another (presumably) low-budget affair that delves into split-personality disorder with a bravura performance from James McAvoy.

While Split doesn't hit theaters until January 20, the film held its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin this past September, and it was featured as one of the Special Screenings at AFI Fest last week in Los Angeles. What was strange, and rather fitting for this film, was that it screened at a rather unusual time, 10:30 PM, which is right between the midnight screenings block and the films that screen around 9 PM that are typically the last of the day, if there aren't any midnight screenings. While this intense thriller is certainly chilling enough to qualify as a "midnight movie," it isn't nearly as gory, with the unusual start time a perfect metaphor for the film itself, since it, like its unusual start time, is definitely outside the proverbial box.

Like all of Night's films, Split is set in Philadelphia, starting off at a seemingly innocuous teenager's birthday party. With the party wrapping up, one of the girls, Casey (The Witch breakout star Anya Taylor-Joy), still doesn't have a ride home, so she ends up catching a ride with the birthday girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). Before they can leave the parking lot, their lives are upended when a deranged man named Kevin (James McAvoy) presumably kills Claire's father and kidnaps all three girls. While it seems like other people are interacting with Kevin on the other side of their locked door, the girls eventually discover that they are all the vastly different personalities that reside within Kevin, 23 of them, to be exact.

When Kevin is not looking after his captives, one of the more affable personalities goes to have sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is trying to prove to the scientific community that people with this mental illness, may hold the key to unlocking other breakthroughs, since some of the personalities have abilities that go beyond the capabilities of the host's physical body. Naturally, Dr. Fletcher is unaware that some of these personalities have gone rogue, so to speak, and kidnapped these girls, as they prepare for the 24th and final personality to arrive, "The Beast."

James McAvoy's performance is truly impressive, inhabiting a slew of distinct characters all under the same cinematic roof. These characters can range from a wide-eyed child with a lisp, who we've seen in the first trailers to a female task-master to the brains behind this whole operation, not to mention The Beast himself. While all might not be seen on screen as much as others, they are all incredibly distinct, and I have the utmost respect and praise for James McAvoy for being able to pull of this mammoth acting feat. Anya Taylor-Joy also proves that she is one of the most talented newcomers out there, with a bold performance as Claire, who uses her wits to try and get out of this creepy facility alive. I won't spoil it for you, but make sure you stay for a wonderful post-credits scene that the AFI Fest crowd certainly enjoyed.

One of the problems I had with Split is that, at 116 minutes in length, it's not nearly as "lean and mean," so to speak, as The Visit. While I completely understand that it's a much more complex story than The Visit, it does get a bit convoluted in the film's second act. Split certainly isn't the first film to tackle dissociative identity disorder, with iconic characters such as Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs and even Psycho's Norman Bates suffering from this disease. James McAvoy's Kevin certainly won't be the last character with multiple personalities, but it may be one of the most ambitious performances in this milieu to date.

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