The career of M. Night Shyamalan has had its ups and downs over the years. After being anointed the next Spielberg following the massive success of "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," and "Signs" in the late 90's and early 2000's, the filmmaker faltered with middling efforts, "The Village" and "The Happening," before completely squandering any goodwill with his big-budget fantasy and science fiction projects, "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth."
Things didn't take an upswing until 2015's low-budget, found-footage horror "The Visit," when Shyamalan returned to his roots, working on the type of smaller, genre-bending films that earned him a reputation in the first place. His latest, the lean, wildly entertaining thriller "Split," continues that upward trend.
Perhaps Shyamalan's biggest downfall was that his films began to be defined solely by their twists. Whether or not you enjoyed them hinged entirely on how taken you were with their surprise revelations. And with each passing film, the gimmick grew less and less effective. Thankfully "Split" offers no "Big Twist." Yes, there's something that happens late in the film that recontextualizes things a bit, but trust me: don't go in waiting for a twist, or you're going to leave disappointed.
James McAvoy stars as Kevin, a man with an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder (DID) which has resulted in possessing 23 different personalities. As the film opens, one of Kevin's personalities abducts three teenage girls -- Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, "The Edge of Seventeen"), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, "The Witch") -- and takes them back to his underground refuge. Kevin's reasons for keeping the girls remains murky through much of the film, though we know that it revolves around the relatively recent emergence of a mysterious 24th identity known only as "The Beast."
Meanwhile Kevin's therapist (Betty Buckley) is advocating on his behalf, unaware of her patient's more unsavory activities. She has a growing fear that something is amiss when one of Kevin's personalities keeps urgently requesting an emergency appointment, only for him to show up at her office and wave off her concern. Buckley brings some much-needed warmth to a film that's often dark and nasty, even if she tasked with shouldering much of the film's exposition.
While "Split" is often suspenseful, it's never truly scary, and there's a touch of exploitation in the way it treats some very real suffering as a source for audience thrills; though DID is a real ailment, the film doesn't exactly offer a nuanced portrayal of mental illness. The plot is more than a little ludicrous, and as an exploration of mental illness, "Split" is as deep as a puddle, but the film works in part because of Shyamalan's general compassion for the characters (even if he allows terrible things to happen to them). If there's a through line that winds its way through much of Shyamalan's work, it's his interest in the way people cope with trauma and how they overcome their demons in order to function in the world.
The three girls respond to their dire situation in very different ways. Casey's a bit of a misfit due to her own childhood trauma, which we learn about as her backstory is gradually doled out by Shyamalan. She knows about survival, and it's not always through the physical toughness with expect from our horror movie heroines. She gains a certain empathy for her captor, and with her performance, Taylor-Joy makes us redefine what makes someone strong and what makes a victim. Unfortunately, the characters of Claire and Marcia don't benefit from the same development Casey receives, but Richardson and Sula play them convincingly.
Really, though, this is McAvoy's show. He gives a tour-de-force performance in a big, flashy (teetering on hammy) role he carries off with impressive skill. We meet only a few of those 23 personalities: OCD tough guy Dennis; mischievous 9-year-old Hedwig; prim, British schoolmarm Patricia; and flamboyant fashion designer Barry. Those are the dominant personas, though we get brief glimpses of a few others. The actor makes each of Kevin's identities distinct, cluing us into which personality has "the light" before he even opens his mouth. All the while, McAvoy gets at the vulnerability and sadness underlying his character.
Shyamalan is a masterful technician, and his skill elevates what's essentially a B-movie potboiler to another level. The virtuosic camerawork of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis ("It Follows") is a major asset, his camera constantly pursuing the characters and accentuating the claustrophobia of Kevin's underground lair. Shyamalan composes the frame to keep us constantly afraid of what remains hidden in the shadows.
"Split" is entertaining enough to convince me that "The Visit" wasn't a fluke. Well-crafted, clever, and thrilling, its most impressive achievement just might be that it's managed to make me excited to see what Shyamalan does next.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of "A Dog's Purpose."