In the early years of this century, M. Night Shyamalan earned a reputation as a maker of supernatural thrillers for thinking people. The problem was that, even if you didn’t see the big twist coming—and in Shyamalan’s early pictures, at least, there was always a big twist—the allegorical messages he insisted on embedding in his movies could be just plain dumb. You were supposed to come out of a Shyamalan movie thinking hard and feeling rattled. How hard you were thinking, and how much you were rattled, depended on your willingness to follow Shyamalan’s meandering breadcrumb trail to the big reveal. The gotcha! twist of The Sixth Sense (1999) was probably his most effective illusion. But after that, his tricks became harder to pull off, his allegedly lofty messages murkier. In the 2002 Signs, a minister who’s lost his faith (played by Mel Gibson), finds himself haunted and challenged by the presence of alien beings in his midst—that’s all well and good until one of them shows up in his living room, a tall guy skulking around in laughably cheap, stretchy PJs. Talk about breaking the mood. And in The Village (2004), a group of 19th century settlers cloistered in a small colony go about their fear-filled daily business, only to learn…well, never mind. (Featured dialogue: “You needn’t be scared. We have the magic rocks. They will keep us safe.”)
But there’s one thing you can say about Shyamalan’s movies: He truly believes in our innocence, to an almost touching degree. Maybe that’s why his latest, Split, sort of works. It doesn’t demand too much from us in the suspension-of-disbelief department, and the whole thing doesn’t hinge on a clamorous bang of a surprise ending. (The surprise is maybe more of a clink.) In Split, which he both wrote and directed, three young women are abducted, creepily, by a twitchy germaphobe, played by James McAvoy—he knocks them out with some etherlike substance before whisking them off to the obligatory locked, secluded chamber. That makes Split seem like a fairly predictable thriller, and in some ways, it is: Shyamalan’s skill as a filmmaker—his instincts for crisp editing, his knack for navigating shifting points of view—have always been stronger than his ideas. That’s true here, too, yet Split is compulsively watchable. Shyamalan takes care in building the mood early on, hinting, maybe, that one of the young women actually knows the abductor. The early kidnaping scene is creepy because it’s a little bit dreamy: Just as the women can’t believe what’s happening, we can’t be totally sure we know what we’re watching.
That mild confusion is part of the film’s design, and McAvoy’s character is key. He goes by several names in Split because, as you can guess by the film’s title, he suffers from multiple-personality disorder (clinically called dissociative personality disorder). McAvoy attacks each of these personas—a prattling, innocent preteen, a persnickety schoolmarm type in a turtleneck and heels—with relish. If there’s a hambone element at work here—what actor doesn’t warm to these types of nutty multiple-personality roles?—McAvoy also channels some genuine anguish when it counts.
Though much of the movie’s plot follows the stock “girls trapped in a sick dude’s secret lair,” it’s relatively un-sadistic and only mildly grisly. Now and then the women’s captor visits them, sometimes with kinky intent. What’s up with this guy? they ask themselves, and we wonder the same. Jessica Sula’s Marcia is the relative throwaway character, the hottie who isn’t quite as smart as the other two. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, recently seen in The Edge of Seventeen) has more spark, and stands a better chance of matching wits with McAvoy’s multifaceted sicko. But it’s Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, of The Witch) who comes closest to unlocking his secrets. Like him, she’s a misfit, an outlier. Her awkwardness is at least partly attributable to her troubled childhood, which Shyamalan dramatizes in flashback with reasonable effectiveness.
Split is ostensibly about lots of things: The demons that live inside us, for one; the tactics humans use to overcome childhood trauma, for another. In the end—after the not-so-shocking final twist—the picture doesn’t delve very deep. (Betty Buckley appears as a progressive and controversial therapist who believes her patients possess special gifts. She’s a sympathetic presence, but you know exactly where her character is headed.) But for the most part, Shyamalan keeps you guessing, here and there employing an arty effect—a victim reflected in a predator’s eye, for instance. Sometimes it’s overkill, but that’s Shyamalan for you. He believes wholeheartedly that he can make us believe—and sometimes that’s enough.