Are there seven words more freighted with the promise of both guilty pleasure and deep disappointment than “written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan”? The tricky auteur who recast the mold of supernatural horror — and essentially invented a one-man industry of twist endings — with early sensations like 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2002’s Signs seemed to fall increasingly into self-parody as the new millennium crept on. There were slack YA fantasies whose titles sounded like painful gastrointestinal problems (2010’s The Last Airbender) and misguided forays into faux-metaphysical father-son sci-fi (the 2013 Will and Jaden Smith washout After Earth; in space, apparently, no one can hear you nap).
But with 2015’s zingy low-budget shocker The Visit, Shyamalan rediscovered something he’d forgotten: fun. Split wisely steers into that curve, though the filmmaker still can’t fully resist the urge to gild his scripts with needlessly dense mythology and exposition. James McAvoy stars as Kevin, a disturbed young man who keeps his head closely shaved and his collared shirts buttoned fussily at the throat. Kevin lives by himself in a windowless underground bunker, the kind of place where either off-season sports equipment gets stored or teenage girls get murdered. (There aren’t any old snowshoes lying around, so guess which way this one will go.) Kevin is lonely, but he’s not alone: He’s got 23 distinct personalities to keep him company, including Patricia, a fluty English rose with a fondness for fitted turtlenecks; Hedwig, a lisping kid who loves walkie-talkies, Kanye West, and the word etcetera; and Barry, a flamboyant fashion designer. He also has a sympathetic therapist (Betty Buckley) who understands his dissociative identity disorder, and three nubile hostages freshly snatched from a birthday party at a local mall — including one (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) with a dark backstory of her own.
The question of whether the girls can find a way to make it out alive — and if a seething new alter ego whom Kevin dubs the Beast is as sinister as he believes — nominally drives the plot, though the true centerpiece is McAvoy’s performance(s). The Glasgow native, who has spent much of the past six years rattling around with billion-dollar mutants in the X-Men franchise, is the same actor who brought extraordinary nuance to starring roles in Oscar darlings like Atonement and The Last King of Scotland, and casting him is easily the movie’s best decision, even if it also feels a little like putting gold rims on a RAV4. (Taylor-Joy, too, deserves credit for bringing an edge of fierce mettle to her obligatory tortured-damsel role.) Split’s giddy nonsense ultimately dissolves in a scrum of half-realized ideas, but maybe that’s exactly Shyamalan’s goal: tipping his final scene with a perfect tease, to be continued. B