THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
It's been more than a decade since M. Night Shyamalan made a good movie. Somewhere along the way, he seemed to lose his grip on the qualities that initially made him special, leading to unmitigated disasters like The Last Airbender and After Earth. In 2015, he reinvented himself as a low-budget genre filmmaker with The Visit. It wasn't great, but it at least had some moments of ingenuity that implied he was starting to get his mojo back. Split has even more of them. It also has a patented “Shyamalan twist” that completely derails what is, for a time, a very well-crafted chiller.
James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with Dissocative Identity Disorder, a mental illness born of substantial trauma that causes people afflicted with it to create multiple personalities. Kevin has twenty-three. The movie opens with one of them, a brute named Dennis, kidnapping three teenage girls -- Casey (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) -- and locking them in a basement somewhere. Casey is the shrewdest of the trio, and she sees a chance to escape by connecting with Hedwig, a shy nine-year-old that Kevin occasionally morphs into. Betty Buckley plays Dr. Fletcher, Kevin's psychiatrist, who comes to believe that he may be about to develop a twenty-fourth personality that could be the most dangerous of all.
For ninety minutes, Split is an extremely entertaining and effective film. McAvoy is superb as Kevin. He vividly creates the character's multiple personalities, making each one feel authentic. Rather than just being showy about it, the actor takes care to give each one a distinct physicality, while still ensuring that we believe they're all part of the same person. It's a real tour-de-force performance in a role that could have just been an acting stunt. He's well-matched by Anya Taylor-Joy, who invests Casey with strength and determination that makes her a credible opponent for her captor. Watching her spar with an ever-changing opponent creates significant tension.
Shyamalan does an interesting thing visually. He often shoots the actors in close-up, their faces right in the middle of the wide-screen frame. It's almost as if they are standing directly in front of us, staring into our eyes. Other times, he has characters approach the camera. This has an eerie, borderline threatening effect. The best use of the technique is during a scene where McAvoy does the most amazing weird dance since Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. Visually speaking, Split very skillfully creates an unnerving atmosphere.
And then there's the requisite “Shyamalan twist.” The final half hour takes a ludicrous left turn that undermines everything that has, up to this point, been working. The compelling part of the story is the idea that Casey sees how to manipulate Kevin's different personalities to search for a way to escape. Instead of paying off that idea, Split abandons it, choosing instead to detour from the real world a tiny bit. The effect is unintentionally comical. What begins as a taut thriller abruptly becomes something irritatingly silly.
One has to wonder if Shyamalan has lost confidence in his skills as a storyteller. Perhaps the success of his earliest films made him believe that he has to shock the audience with an unforeseen twist. If so, that's a shame. What he has for a while here is terrific. There's no need to toss in a half-baked surprise, especially when the plot's seeming natural conclusion would have been far, far preferable.
Split undoubtedly has strong points, notably the performances. Even if it's not the most realistic depiction of DID, the “movie version” of the disorder is used to great effect. That said, it's hard to feel satisfied by a film that so happily cops out on itself. Rather than sending you away elated, Split leaves you feeling deflated.
( 1/2 out of four)
Split is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.
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