Fans of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan have greeted the low-budget thriller Split as a confirmation that he's back on track, after bloated debacles like The Happening and The Last Airbender. Without a doubt, this film is tense, lean and sometimes mean — well, as mean as a director who was once hailed as the new Spielberg can get with a PG-13 rating, anyway.
Channeling the cheap thrills of old-time exploitation movies, Shyamalan casts James McAvoy in the role of a mild-mannered fellow named Kevin whose dissociative identity disorder has given him 23 separate personalities. The actor lets the demented and campy rip, and the result is entertaining, if not terribly scary. Hidden in the silliness are ideas that could subvert the film's very exploitation appeal. But by the end, the director seems unclear on what he wants to do with them, other than score a nice budget for his next project.
The core of those ideas, voiced by therapist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), is that we should not consider Kevin "crazy," only different, and that we should respect his personalities as separate people. The problem is, two of those people are psychotic, and they've staged a coup.
In the opening scene, control-freak personality "Dennis" snatches three teenagers from a parking lot and brings them to his lair, a warren-like basement where most of the film's action takes place. Cultured, unctuous "Patricia" drops sinister hints about why they're there. Two of the girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) fight back. The third, outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch), freezes like a prey animal.
Casey is clearly the audience surrogate character, which makes her seeming passivity especially unsettling. The reasons for it emerge in flashbacks, even as we learn that Casey has her own way of resisting. By befriending another of Kevin's personalities — "Hedwig," a gullible 9-year-old — she discovers the chilling purpose behind the girls' imprisonment. Hint: There's a 24th personality. And he's hungry.
Working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (It Follows), Shyamalan creeps us out with limited framing and perspective; he puts us in Casey's place, for instance, as she wakes to find her captor horrifyingly close to her. But this tension drains away in rambling, overlong scenes of Fletcher solving the mystery. And once Hedwig becomes a prominent character — he's essentially a comedy sketch, complete with catchphrase — the scenes in the basement get steadily less scary and more like absurdist comedy.
Whether Split works for horror fans will probably depend on their reaction to the unveiling of the much-vaunted 24th personality. For this viewer, that's where the film crosses over into another, and distinctly less dread-inducing, genre. The film's coda scene — which may send younger viewers straight to Google — cements the impression that Shyamalan is interested in making a different type of movie.
Which would be fine, if only he'd brought more resolution to this one. After the screen time lavished on Casey's backstory — which evokes very real, stomach-turning forms of trauma — the shrug with which the film concludes her character arc seems perfunctory and cruel. Fletcher's rhetoric encouraging us to care about Kevin's various personalities doesn't amount to much, either.
Shyamalan can't seem to decide whether he's going for classic horror nihilism or the humanism of his previous work, which sometimes verged on New Agey optimism. In Split, he fills the space between those two incompatible visions with striking images and — courtesy of McAvoy — outrageous weirdness. For a January scare flick, this is superior material, but the split in its own personality might just divide viewers, too.