M. Night Shyamalan has made a nice little name for himself trying to live up to the promise he delivered with The Sixth Sense way back in 1999. Though nothing he’s done since has quite matched the gut-punch “I see dead people” twist, there have been at least a few glimmers of hope along the way. The Village, Unbreakable, and last year’s The Visit were all better than average and certainly miles ahead of his misfires (or abject disasters) like The Last Airbender and The Happening.
For his latest, Shyamalan chose to completely abandon his need to include a massive twist ending and instead just present a straightforward (for the most part, anyway) horror/suspense film. And though Split ends up relying more than it needs to on been-there-done-that horror clichés, it succeeds nonetheless as a genuinely intense and often scary thriller.
James McAvoy leads the way as a man with dissociative identity disorder. There are 23 separate personalities living inside him. As “Dennis”, he kidnaps three teenage girls from a mall parking lot and locks them in his basement, telling them only that they are “sacred food” for “the Beast”. Two of the girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), are best friends and clearly among the popular kids, while Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the class outcast; it’s one of many dynamics that add a fresh and welcome perspective to Split.
As each day goes by, the girls are introduced to other personalities, including naive nine-year-old Hedwig and Miss Patricia, an elderly British schoolmarm. At the same time, Shyamalan intersperses scenes with alternate-personality Barry (an aspiring fashion designer) meeting with his therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley). And we also see flashbacks as a young Casey goes on a hunting trip with her father and uncle. The three distinct plot lines combine to unfold the story with deliberate mystery, as we’re given only enough information to keep us guessing as to what’s going on and how it will eventually all come together. Split’s psychological mind games are further heightened by the basement’s confined space; it’s both disorienting and unsettling, making the audience feel almost as trapped.
More than anything, though, Split rises (and rarely falls) on McAvoy’s mesmerizing work creating almost a dozen different characters, giving them each distinct personalities, including tics and accents. It’s a captivating series of performances that may have actually torpedoed the film in lesser hands.
Channeling both Hitchcock and The Silence of the Lambs in equal measure, Shyamalan has crafted a taut thriller that quickly reminds us of his long-ago prowess. Split still can’t top The Sixth Sense (will anything ever?), but it’s a solid reminder that the name formerly synonymous with mind-blowing suspense still has something left in the tank.