Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley
View the trailer here.
For those in the audience long convinced that The Sixth Sense (1999) was a fluke—followed as it was by a string of goofy “big reveal” movies—M. Night Shyamalan has finally made another good movie. (Full disclosure: I missed 2015’s The Visit, which I heard good things about.)
When he’s not playing Professor Xavier in the X-Men series, James McAvoy lately is playing more villainous, or at least more colorfully dangerous, roles. He was the title character in Victor Frankenstein (2015), and he’s all 23 title characters of Split. His true and buried identity, Kevin, suffers from dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder), and his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), has evidently concluded that he can’t be cured. The best she can do, through counseling and medication, is to enable Kevin to treat the nearly two dozen personalities as a management committee, who take it in turns to be the personality in control at any given moment.
The prevailing personality is Barry, a cheerful fashion designer. Another frequently seen is Hedwig, a mischievous 9-year-old boy. Two personalities who have been banned from ever taking a turn are Dennis and Patricia, both of whom are dark, angry, and dangerous. Trouble is, something has happened to trigger the reemergence of these two. And that’s where we come in.
In a frightening scene, Dennis abducts three teenage girls as they leave a birthday party at a restaurant. When they recover from the knockout spray he’s hit them with, they find themselves imprisoned in a windowless and apparently underground cell. It soon occurs to them that their abductor is several people, so to speak. Dennis seems to be undergoing an internal “transformation” similar to the one that drove “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs: he says cryptic things to the girls about the impending emergence and arrival of something he calls the Beast, apparently a 24th personality that sounds none too promising.
Dr. Fletcher, meanwhile, addresses via Skype a European psychiatric conference, putting forth her controversial theory that people like Kevin actually house numerous distinct personalities, as opposed to clusters of different personality traits. She further notes that there can be actual physiological differences between the personalities — one may have an illness that the others don’t, for example—and that the strength of a given personality may bring about changes or capabilities that seem almost supernatural or superhuman. This is what your high school English teacher referred to as “foreshadowing.”
Closer to home, in consults with “Barry,” Dr. Fletcher soon suspects she’s actually talking to Dennis, who’s trying to pass himself off as Barry. In the subterranean chamber, the girls’ efforts to escape have led Dennis to separate them into different cells. Only one of the three, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, who was so good in last year’s underrated The Witch), has any idea of how to approach their abductor, chiefly by interacting with “Hedwig.” Casey, who had been a “pity invite” to the birthday party, has a head-start over the other two girls when it comes to dealing with a troubled person because she’s damaged goods herself. In a series of disturbing flashbacks, we see how she got to be that way.
The efforts of Dr. Buckley and Casey converge in a horror-movie climax that delivers. Only quibble: a final, seemingly tacked-on reference to an earlier Shyamalan film, featuring a surprising but gratuitous cameo. As usual, Shyamalan makes a cameo appearance himself. The standout performances in Split are those of Taylor-Joy and, of course, McAvoy, which is as it should be. This is an effective psychological thriller, if you’re in the market for one. For a hilarious take on some of the reaction the movie is generating among the Terribly Sensitive, see here (NSFW).