Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable”)
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Visit,” “After Earth”)
Former Hollywood golden boy M. Night Shyamalan has been working on a comeback for longer than he was at the top of his game, and since the double-sided nadir of “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” Shyamalan has gone small, like a former world-class athlete rebuilding his game in the minors. 2015’s “The Visit” was a fun found-footage horror romp with zero big stars and a sly wink at the audience from time to time. With his latest, “Split,” Shyamalan starts to play a little hero ball like it’s 2001 again, shooting to spin an intimate psychological thriller into an epic tale of supernatural ability using showy performances and, yes, a twist–with mixed results.
At a birthday party for popular high school student Claire (Haely Lu Richardson), the quiet, introverted Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) remains an outcast, invited only so it wouldn’t be awkward in class. When it’s time to go, Casey hitches a reluctant ride with Claire, Claire’s dad, and Claire’s friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), only Claire’s dad is knocked out before he can get in the car and the three girls are taken by a stranger named Kevin (James McAvoy) and locked in an underground bunker. When the girls come to, they find that Kevin suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and they’re visited and/or tormented by several identities including manically methodical Dennis, taciturn Miss Patricia, and lisping 9-year-old Hedwig. These identities are revolting against the reasonable artist persona Barry, who keeps trying to break through and reach psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) — who likens Kevin’s disorder to superhuman abilities — before an unknown entity known as “The Beast” arrives to devour the captive girls.
While McAvoy’s go-for-broke performance as the multiple personalities is bold and grimly funny at times, the nearly two-hour run time leaves a few aspects teetering on the brink of annoyance (I’m looking at you, Hedwig). Also puzzling is the inclusion of a grossly depressing backstory for Taylor-Joy’s Claire that does essentially nothing for the plot accept to provide a head-scratching end to the climax and an icky aftertaste in the epilogue. Why her character was made to suffer that fate to have such a confusing payoff is a mystery.
So, let’s talk about the twist—which, really, has more in common with the Marvel school of post-credits stingers that open up the movie’s world instead of turning what we just watched on its ear. It’s a bold decision, for sure, and it’s hard to decide if it’s a brilliant move or a boneheaded one. Either way, it will make you leave the theater talking. Although it’s a little like watching Kobe Bryant back in the day score 60 points in a game—thrilling, to be sure, but maybe an indicator that Shyamalan hasn’t quite learned his lesson.