Movie review: Split

Come Monday, a lot of people are going to be talking about the very last minute of Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest cinematic head trip. At the end of this review, I’m going to get into that a bit in as non-spoilery a way as I can. (I’m certainly not going to give the reveal away, but it must be addressed in some fashion.) First, let’s talk about the rest of the movie …

Night, it seems, has finally righted his ship. As great as The Sixth Sense was, it sent its creator down a path littered with pretentiousness and hubris. He decided that the GIANT PLOT TWIST™ would be his brand going forward and crafted each subsequent movie as a slowly unlocking puzzle box. Except the prize at the center of the box got less and less exciting while the movies grew increasingly ridiculous. When the brand petered out with The Happening, Night tried to get back on track by taking a few big-budget/director-for-hire gigs (After Earth, The Last Airbender). Those didn’t work either, and Shyamalan went looking for a new path.

He found one in 2015 when he wrote and directed the low-budget horror flick The Visit. Yeah, that one had a twist too, but the film was also lean and mean in the best of ways. Gone was the overwrought pomposity of past works. In its place was a schlocky, horror-comedy vibe. It turns out, we don’t want Night making heady big-budget thrillers at all. We want him making purposefully cheesy, down-and-dirty spookfests!

Split only further proves that point and gives one hope that Shyamalan understands this as well. Within its first 10 minutes, three teen-aged girls — two popular cheerleader types and a goth-ier loner played by Anya Taylor-Joy — are kidnapped by a bald, bespectacled James McAvoy in a store parking lot. The three are held captive in a locked room located in some type of industrial basement, and it soon becomes clear that their abductor isn’t just a man, but actually many men … and a woman … and a nine-year-old child. That’s right, this movie ain’t called Split for nothin’, as McAvoy brilliantly channels a slew of different personalities while playing Kevin, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder. The personality who did the kidnapping is an OCD-plagued working stiff named “Dennis” who has teamed up with hoity-toity Englishwoman “Patricia” to begin preparations for “The Beast,” a horrific-sounding new personality they believe is about join the group. A ceremonial feast must be prepared for The Beast’s arrival, and it doesn’t take much to guess what’s going to be on the menu.

Split‘s primary narrative details the girls’ attempts to outwit their captor — sometimes using his own personalities against him — and escape their dungeon before even worse things happen to them. But there are also two secondary threads: one dealing with a psychologist (Betty Buckley) who has spent many years treating Kevin and studying his disorder, and another that focuses on the traumatic childhood of Casey, Taylor-Joy’s character. All three become increasingly interwoven as the film barrels toward its climax.

Again, mirroring what worked so well in The Visit, Shyamalan keeps the plotting tight and focused, leaving any showiness to his actors. Taylor-Joy builds off the good work she did in The Witch, but Split is really the McAvoy show from start to finish. Subtlety isn’t going to work in a movie like this, and McAvoy tears into each personality with physical gusto, altering his voice, the way he stands, the way he moves. It’s a riveting performance, especially once the personalities begin fighting for control of Kevin and The Beast makes its grand entrance. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t always reach such heights. It’s a bit awkward how the other two kidnapped girls are quickly shoved to the fringes of the film. And Casey’s backstory fails to pay off in a satisfactory way. (Her final scene in the movie drastically needs a rewrite.) These things prove to be more than nit-picks but less than movie-killers, and McAvoy’s always around to bring the focus back to his fierce turn.

Now about that ending …

Something happens in the final moment of the film that literally made me gasp in the theater but also serves as a heck of a dual-edged sword. In the moment, I was completely tickled by it but later came to realize that, while fun, it doesn’t really serve the preceding movie at all. On top of that, it hints that Shyamalan may not have fully purged all that pretentiousness from his system. In fact, he might be just getting warmed up. (Gulp.) And still another thing: I know there has been some pre-release controversy over this movie’s treatment of dissociative identity disorder and mental illness as a whole. Taking the film strictly as a pulpy bit of genre fun, I don’t really share that concern. However, when the entire movie gets recontextualized thanks to its last-minute shock, some of those complaints do indeed show merit.

So, long story short: Split is a good movie from frame one, but that little stinger at the end is all film buffs are going to be talking about this weekend. My advice? Go in blind. Enjoy the ending for what it is. Try not to let it overwhelm the fun, gonzo horror thriller that precedes it.