Split starts with a horrific abduction in broad daylight, following teenage Claire Benoit's birthday party at the local mall. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), her BFF Marcia (Jessica Sula), and school outcast Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) all wake up in a makeshift holding cell, with an unusual captor holding the keys. At first, they meet the meticulous and methodical Dennis (James McAvoy), but then Dennis becomes the soft-spoken and menacing "Patricia," and then the infantile and naive Hedwig, as the girls quickly realize their abductor is a mess of conflicted split personalities.
As time counts down, "Dennis" and "Patricia" prepare to give birth to a dreaded new personality known as "The Beast." Meanwhile, caring doctor Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) tries to unravel warnings from some of the more benevolent personalities fighting against Dennis and Patricia, before they do something truly evil.
The latest film from M. Night Shyamalan, Split is a classic Hitchcockian thriller elevated to more fantastical levels by some heady theory about how Dissociative identity disorder can unlock the potential of the human brain. It's an odd mix, taken altogether; however, thanks to a captivating performance from James McAvoy and a few good twists, it ends up being an overall enjoyable return to the M. Night Shyamalan movie experience.
In terms of thrills, Split isn't the rush that some viewers may be expecting, based on the trailers. From the very first scene, it's clear that Shyamalan is much more interested in employing the sort of Hithcock tropes (slow panning reveals, split-screen action, reverse perspective), that create slow-burn atmospheric tension, rather than edge-of-your-seat tension. It's also clear that the offbeat horror/humor balance of Shyamalan's previous film, The Visit, is now a staple of the director's films: Split has many laughable moments mined out of its unusual antagonist, and his captives attempts to understand and deal with his condition.
Shyamalan's screenplay is, unfortunately, as scatter-brained as its villain. There are too many storylines and central characters (Dennis, Dr. Fletcher, Casey), as well as some jarring time jumps, which don't necessarily converge into the smoothest or most clear justification of the film's thematic arc. If Split had been better streamlined, then any one or two of its major plotlines would've developed into a great cinematic story; however, three is simply a crowd, and Split squanders a lot of time spreading screen time around, rather than delving deeper into what works best.
Thankfully, moments that drag are quickly erased whenever a new scene with McAvoy is introduced. The X-Men star succeeds entirely in creating real characters around each one of the various personalities in his head. In fact, the details of each performance are so finely tuned and executed that changes in facial tick, mannerisms, or even the expressiveness of his eyes is enough to create tension around what is happening in his head, and which personality is in control at any given moment. It's impossible to take your eyes off McAvoy, and the level of his commitment to each character allows him to carry the film on his shoulders in a veritable one-man-show.
Young Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Morgan) is good playing your classic complicated and emotionally stunted Shyamalan hero (see also: Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), and her performance gets extra points for subtlety and depth, as the secrets of the story are revealed. However, if there is one thing Shyamalan's script fails at, it's bringing Casey's arc to a satisfying close within the thematic framework of the story. Meanwhile, the other characters in the story are pretty thin sketches of outdated horror/thriller archetypes (bubble-headed teen damsels, the naively sympathetic doctor who realizes the danger too late, etc.). As always, be on the lookout for a cameo from the director himself….
Without spoiling anything, Split is the odd case of a movie that needs to be seen again, once all of the final reveals have been made. It's one thing seeing the movie the first time (maybe not the most rewarding experience), but with re-examination afterward, more of the deeper subtext starts to make emerge, make sense, and enhances the overall experience.
In other words: it's hard to talk about this one without saying too much. If you're a longtime Shyamalan fan, this is definitely a return to form you'll enjoy. However, for newcomers just hoping for another taut thriller in the vein of last year's Don't Breathe, you should probably prepare for a much more atmospheric and slow-burn Shyamalan movie experience.
Split will be in theaters on Friday, January 20. It is 1 hour and 57 minutes long, and is Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.