The time when M. Night Shyamalan was poised to become cinema’s next great master of suspense has long since come and gone, bulldozed by the hubris of effects-driven hokum and recycled self-parody. After a decade of five consecutive whiffs, last year’s The Visit was a cautious, low-budget return to form. Shyamalan’s comeback continues with Split, a psychological thriller (natch) blessed with competent acting and adroit direction. And just when it feels like the script is jumping the rails, well, here comes the Twist™.
During a well-staged cold open, three teenage girls—Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson from The Edge of Seventeen), and Marcia (Jessica Sula)—are kidnapped from a restaurant parking lot in broad daylight. Their captor, Kevin (James McAvoy), locks them in a windowless bunker and then periodically interacts with them as one of a rotating set of split personalities lurking in his synapses.
The main alternate identity is the assailant, Dennis, an obsessive-compulsive who likes to watch scantily clad girls dance. Dennis’s partner-in-crime, Patricia, is a prim matriarch who fancies sweaters and high heels. Hedwig is a wide-eyed nine-year-old with a fondness for Kanye West and a fear of the impending arrival of “the beast,” which Dennis and Patricia promise will subsume Kevin’s twenty-three alternate personalities and somehow shock the world.
Although the film oscillates between varying external and internal characters, the two primary protagonists are Kevin and Casey. We learn that both share the literal and figurative scars of childhood abuse, Casey from a perverse uncle and Kevin from his cruel mother. With Claire and Marcia frantically conceiving avenues of escape, Casey adopts a gradual approach, attempting to befriend Hedwig. The feeling of dread gradually tightens as the girls’ plight becomes direr and Kevin’s psychosis more frayed.
Meanwhile, several of Kevin’s suppressed personalities, including Barry, an effete fashion designer, reach out to Karen Fletcher (a drolly game Betty Buckley), Kevin’s psychiatrist and a renowned expert in dissociative identity disorder. Fletcher suspects something’s amiss, so she tries to burrow into Kevin’s mind and resolve his internal war before “the beast” arrives.
Split fruitfully explores the psychic and mental confines of Casey’s cage and utilizes her expressive countenance well. When the narrative indulges its own split personality by veering too far and too long into the extremes of Kevin's disorder, it spins off into an ill-fitting fantasy/horror plotline that grows tedious, until …
Well, let’s just say there hasn’t been a final shot that has so utterly reframed the audience’s perception of everything leading to it since Planet of the Apes. This is Shyamalan’s stock-in-trade, a corker of a climax. It doesn’t completely salvage the entirety of Split—indeed, it amplifies its schizophrenic seams. But when it comes to conjuring things you didn’t see coming, Shyamalan clearly still has a sixth sense.