At last, M. Night Shyamalan has decided to let his freak flag fly, and made the sort of unapologetic B-movie one always suspected he had pent up inside of him; it swerves from dark comedy to 1970s-esque psycho-horror as the irresistibly preposterous script struggles for attention against a delirious lead performance by James McAvoy. Split is funnier, campier, and more freewheeling than anything its writer-director has done—slightly overlong, but reminiscent of Brian De Palma films like The Fury and Femme Fatale in its refusal to be boring. Shyamalan pulls out one ingenious camera move after another with the help of Michael Gioulakis, the cinematographer of It Follows, echoing Split’s subterranean setting and subconscious concerns through creative and formalist thrills. Self-reflexive, maybe even therapeutic, it twists the themes of fate and trauma that have been his stock-in-trade since The Sixth Sense into a very entertaining genre exercise—some of his strongest work since the days of The Village and Signs.
In the bravura opening sequence, three teenagers Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are kidnapped from a mall parking lot and locked inside a bunker-like basement by Kevin (McAvoy)—a man with an incredibly elaborate case of dissociative identity disorder—or more specifically, by two of his normally harmless alternate personas, who have staged an internal revolt to prepare for the arrival of an apocalyptic entity that they have dubbed “The Beast.” Key to the gonzo conception of Split is the way it reformulates some of its director’s best-known work; Kevin is basically the plot of The Village—that is, a community of survivors in conflict over an unseen monster—mashed together with a second film that will go unnamed here in the interest of avoiding spoilers. (There’s a twist ending, too, but although it’s a hoot, it’s extraneous to the plot.) Four personas figure prominently in Split: self-loathing neat freak Dennis, overbearing Patricia, childlike Hedwig, and easygoing Barry.
In a go-for-broke piece of acting, McAvoy plays them all as distinct characters and as different parts of the almost completely unseen Kevin, their place in his psyche revealed through exaggerated mannerisms. Casey, the de facto leader of the three abductees, has to resort to deceiving the personas or playing them against one another to get out; if that weren’t enough of a logic puzzle, the personas can also manipulate and impersonate each other, though pointedly, they can’t mimic Kevin. Toying with audience perception is Shyamalan’s signature trick, but here he outdoes himself, creating a cat’s cradle of limited perspectives, point-of-view and overhead shots, and rapid changes in visual focus. As strange as it may sound, Split actually has more to say about the intersection of emotional, sexual, and artistic repression than one could hope to unpack in a review; it is both unabashedly trashy and a lot smarter than it lets on, with a sense of humor to match.
Above all, it’s fun. It’s a credit to Shyamalan’s considerable gifts as a stylist of pure suspense that the film moves fluidly so much of the time, despite periodic cuts to the requisite concerned psychologist (Betty Buckley) and some largely unnecessary flashbacks to Casey’s childhood. Nestled among those, however, is one of the more disturbing scenes in Shyamalan’s oeuvre. For as devil-may-care as Split might be when it comes to form, it is a dark and seemingly personal film deep down. The found-footage horror flick The Visit—a film that’s only a little less self-reflexive than Split—gave the one-time Hollywood golden boy a chance to start over after a couple of misguided forays into the world of effects-driven fantasy blockbusters. This film, made on an identically low budget but with a lot more confidence, feels like another step in a transformation: It waves away the somber atmosphere of his early successes to run hollering down a dark tunnel, chasing familiar motifs further underground.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Split’s Spoiler Space.