Twist meister M. Night Shyamalan is back in popular favor after a long string of disasters (and the modest success of The Visit) with multiple personality thriller Split. But the return to form is a somewhat measured success – miles from the gobsmacking stupidity of his greatest follies but still a far cry from his strongest, most beloved works. M. Night still just doesn’t understand how people think and sound, or how that basis in reality enhances his chilling moments. The more outlandish elements of Split are more believable than the necessary, the simplest dialogue or minor details archly silly. He’d do better to just listen to everyday conversations for his next film instead of thinking up new shockeroos – remember how understated and real the final car scene in The Sixth Sense was?
Split does come with some focused, charged energy for its kidnapping nailbiter. A group of three friends, led by The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy, are taken captive in an industrial basement by Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin’s plan for them only slowly reveals itself through his foreboding multiple personalities, each more creepy than actually physically threatening. Meanwhile, Kevin’s therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) handles Kevin’s urgent emails for meetings and immediate backpedaling, while coming to the realization that some of Kevin’s personalities are fighting for dominance. It’s effective, simplistic concept too often thrown asunder with trombone-ready machinations.
The film isn’t necessarily one for surprises, at least not any that haven’t had the beans spilled in trailers or come in the first act. There is one last bit though, a tacked-on bit of world building all but unrelated to the film itself no matter how it recontextualizes it. Split is at its most enjoyable when it plays it simple as a straightforward thriller, and that’s when Shyamalan’s directorial technique is the most successful.
McAvoy has never been given quite the showcase to run wild, though Shyamalan has him running a little too wild. The broad strokes in the performance make for a few scary moments, but he’s directed to forcefulness that too easily foretells the films coming rhythms. Betty Buckley proves to be quite game for some really silly and hackneyed forcefulness of plotting sans “lemon drink” (oh The Happening, you happened), maybe so game that it lays the weaker dialoguing bare. Taylor-Joy is saddled with heavy handed backstory that she gives a much needed light tough.
Visually astute, but empty underneath, Split is a passable entry in Shyamalan’s canon but not one we’ll remember.