M. Night Shyamalan’s funhouse of narrative gimmicks is back open for business in Split, his new thriller that locks three teenage girls in an industrial basement with a man consumed by at least 23 warring personalities. If many psychiatrists are skeptical of “dissociative identity disorder,” as the illness formerly known as multiple personality disorder is now diagnosed, horror auteurs have long been happy to inflict it on their characters. Multiple personalities offer movies the ultimate unknowable villain, playing on our fears about how well we can ever know another person and their interior struggles. They also tend to inspire memorably unhinged performances from actors who have a ball toggling through the various alter egos, a tradition James McAvoy giddily inherits here. But in Split, the results are curious: In taking up arguably his most absurd premise yet, Shyamalan has made the straightest thriller of his career, nearly free of the misguided detours and bonkers twists that made him famous. You wish it were messier.
In Split, menace first enters the frame quietly, as it often does in Shyamalan’s films. Three girls (including Anya Taylor-Joy, who reprises final-girl duties from The Witch) wait in a car for a ride home from a birthday party, bantering idly, until a strange man nervously enters the driver’s seat. He pauses, as if in doubt, then slips on a surgical mask and gases them all to sleep. The girls awake to find themselves locked away in a basement room. Through a series of bizarre encounters, they realize their host (McAvoy) is in fact several hosts: a fidgety young boy, a parochial old woman, an antic man who demands they remove a piece of clothing. Before long, one of the identities casually mentions the girls are there to “feed” someone, which you can rest assured Shyamalan means literally.
Multiple personality thrillers from Psycho through Fight Club have tended to introduce their subjects’ condition as a twist, but in a clever inversion, Split simultaneously follows Dr. Fletcher, a psychiatrist actively treating the McAvoy character. Fletcher, naturally, dedicates her life to convincing the world that dissociative identity disorder is real and gives several dubious lectures on the subject for our benefit. (She’s played by Betty Buckley, who starred as the ill-fated teacher in Brian De Palma’s original Carrie, one of the movie’s many winks at classic horror.) Split has great fun with the therapy sessions between doctor and patient, using them to fashion a surprisingly cogent mystery about what’s going on in our fragmented villain’s head—and what may be in store for his unfortunate teenage guests.
Shyamalan admirers—count me as one—will find plenty to savor in the movie’s ranks of lively supporting players (including some well-trained hamsters) and demented details (at one point, the camera lingers on 23 toothbrushes for 23 personalities). If Shyamalan can sometimes be drawn to leading men who take his material too seriously—make it stop, Mel Gibson—he finds an ideal grinning lunatic in McAvoy, who flips between his character’s many dramatic personae with carefully apportioned tics and able humor. McAvoy has particular fun with Hedwig, a 9-year-old boy with a heavy lisp, a fondness for the expression etc., and a sinister agenda. But his total commitment is almost a shame, because the screenplay, which Shyamalan also wrote, never quite locates the humanity in a man supposedly occupied by 23 people. (Or is it 24?!) He’s all surfaces, and we never spend enough time with the “good” personalities to care what happens when the bad ones take over.
Instead, Split’s most disturbing scenes come in flashbacks that tease out the past agonies of Taylor-Joy’s twice-unlucky teen. Stark and soaked in dead-silent tension, the short recurring sequences build a sense of dread that’s woefully absent from the rest of the movie, an eerie reminder of Shyamalan’s no-kid-gloves approach to childhood trauma in The Sixth Sense and other films. In his movies, when children point guns at adults, they mean it.
The rest of Split is pleasingly screwy but never truly unnerving, a limitation most obvious in a routine climax that’s nowhere near as wild as it seems to think it is. (Can someone explain why it’s so scary for people to crawl up walls? Email in bio.) Shyamalan, often to his peril, is drawn to WTF reversals and twists, but he ironically opts for guilelessness in a movie that could clearly benefit from his cruder instincts. Why isn’t Split actually a hallucinatory metaphor for our fractured society set 400 years in the future? Couldn’t one of the identities have been a misanthropic ficus? Give us something.
Shyamalan himself seems to have sensed his mistake. After the movie ends, it offers a very silly but kind of sublime final “twist” in the credits, a nod to the old prankster we know is still in there somewhere. Next time, let’s let him out.