M. Night Shyamalan’s Split begins with a jolt of dread and ends, nearly two hours later, with a twist guaranteed to spin your head.
In between lies a tightrope walk among horror, suspense, drama and comedy that occasionally wobbles mightily on the journey to the final destination, but, thanks in large part to a pair of enthusiastic, nuanced performances from James McAvoy and Fort Worth’s own Betty Buckley, proves to be worth the risk.
McAvoy stars as Kevin, a man afflicted with dissociative identity disorder (DID), who, in the opening moments of the film, kidnaps three young women — Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) — and traps them in a dingy basement. The kidnapping sequence, staged in broad daylight in an anonymous suburban strip mall, is a marvel of efficiency and charged with a queasiness worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.
It soon becomes clear to the kidnap victims that they are dealing with not one captor, but several: Dennis, an OCD-afflicted tough; Patricia, a prim English woman; Hedwig, a rambunctious 9-year-old and Barry, an effete fashion designer, among others.
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(This parade of personalities was greeted with a mixture of amused and nervous laughter at the screening I attended, which may or may not have been the effect Shyamalan was going for.)
As the young women race to figure out an escape plan, Kevin is meeting with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley, who also appeared in Shyamalan’s The Happening), a psychologist who is fascinated by the 23 personalities fighting for “the light” within her patient, much to the consternation of her contemporaries.
Split becomes a race against time, as Kevin and his 23 personalities prepare for the arrival of a 24th, known only as “The Beast,” who is spoken of in fearful tones.
The bulk of the film involves long, explicative sequences between McAvoy and Buckley, and both are up to the task of playing mental chess — McAvoy, in particular, lets the myriad characters dance across his features, often signaling a shift with nothing more than a trembling eyebrow.
It’s a mesmerizing piece of acting, and a role to which McAvoy commits fully. Particularly as Split draws to its violent, nerve-jangling end, McAvoy cycles through characters in the space of seconds — distinguishing each one — and it’s a marvel to behold.
Yet Shyamalan is also preoccupied with the backstory of Casey, whose childhood is glimpsed in flashbacks that grow progressively more troubling as the film unfolds. This parallel narrative provides Split with an unexpected emotional core, deepening the tale beyond its surface thrills to reveal an all-too-human horror.
The climactic twist, which I’ll avoid spoiling in order to preserve the surprise, casts everything just seen in a new light, and helps smooth over a few of the more-fantastic turns the narrative takes as it builds to its frenzied, fevered conclusion.
It’s a bold stroke for a filmmaker often pilloried for making such creative decisions, but one that pays off, and doesn’t feel like a cheat. (Those intent on ruining their own experience can, with a little Googling, uncover what Split has in store.)
Apart from McAvoy and Buckley, the remaining cast members are not given much to do beyond whimper, scream and shout at one another. It is whenever the film focuses on the three kidnap victims that Shyamalan’s writing feels most thin and vaguely fleshed out.
Still, having weathered the ups and downs of more than 20 years in Hollywood, Shyamalan proves he’s still capable of delivering a harrowing thriller, one smartly of a piece with his cinematic past, yet standing on its own as a diverting experience.
☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Betty Buckley, Anya Taylor-Joy
Rating: PG-13 (disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and strong language)
Running time: 117 min.