It has already been exclaimed to death that “Split” sees M. Night Shyamalan return to his former glory. If this refers to his aptitude circa 2000 with “Unbreakable,” I might agree. (Ironically, his new film has quite a bit in common with his lead-footed superhero drama.) If this refers to his aptitude circa 1999 with “The Sixth Sense,” I’d readily rebuke such a claim. “Split” is a far cry from the chilling caliber of Shyamalan’s biggest and most memorable hit. Not to say that it should have been more like “The Sixth Sense,” but it still suffers in a number of ways. Thankfully, the film is also a far cry from the lameness of some of Shyamalan’s recent efforts. His eye is indeed more focused, but not nearly enough in order to generate the urgency and terror this film sorely lacks. It has its moments, mainly due to some powerhouse acting, but “Split” is, shockingly, quite limp.
After a birthday party at the mall, friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and quiet loner Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), invited out of pity, are abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy) and held prisoner in a labyrinthine, underground cellar. The girls soon discover that their captor is far more disturbed than they previously imagined. At one point, Kevin appears to them dressed as a woman, calling himself Patricia, who tells the girls that they have been brought to serve a greater purpose. Later, he dons a childish lisp, calling himself Hedwig, who tells the girls that he is nine years old. These are just two of the 23 different identities housed in Kevin’s body, all of which are about to give way to a 24th identity known only as the Beast. Taking charge of the situation, Casey desperately attempts to escape with her classmates in tow before the Beast arrives.
Shyamalan opens the film with incredible promise, staging a tense kidnapping sequence in the first five minutes of the picture, overlaid with stylized opening credits and a grungy score by West Dylan Thordson, which subtly recalls the gritty opening of “Seven.” The board is set, but Shyamalan almost immediately cuts away from the main game to explore two subplots. The first details some exposition-heavy therapy sessions between Kevin, appearing as flamboyant artist Barry, and Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), which reveal the severity of Kevin's disorder. The other explores Casey’s troubled childhood through a series of flashbacks. Just when tensions start to rise within the cellar, Shyamalan resorts to filling in narrative gaps that don’t necessarily need to be filled, which both overcomplicates and slows the film entirely.
Then there’s the payoff for the whole Beast concept. Shyamalan does an admirable job probing his audience to question just who or what the Beast will be. By the time it arrives, any and all anxiety is completely undercut by Shyamalan’s ludicrous execution of the climactic terror. It is campy and totally betrays whatever scientific credibility the film holds, that is until Shyamalan sticks in one final twist just before the credits roll. While it does clear up the absurdity of the Beast’s capabilities, it feels unbearably cheap. Unless you are a Shyamalover, these final seconds will fill you with rage and confusion.
“Split” is weakened by a bunch of narrative contrivances, but the effort remains impressive on a technical level. Camerawork is precise, fluid, and often unsettling, as Shyamalan repeatedly frames the main players in tight close-up, examining every minute tick and twitch brought on by either panic, intrigue, or trauma. McAvoy gets to have the most fun with these moments, delivering one of the finest performances of his career. It’s a marvel to see him treat each personality of his character as if they are truly who they believe themselves to be. His scenes as Hedwig are particularly compelling, as he dials up the child’s cuteness in tandem with his creepiness. Taylor-Joy is also brilliant, exhibiting further proof that she can elicit so much out of audiences with the simplest of expressions. Her scenes with McAvoy, even during that preposterous finale, are the best Shyamalan has to offer. Too bad the film itself is not worthy of their collective excellence.