Having gone from “The Next Spielberg” to eliciting snide laughter when his name appears on a trailer, M. Night Shyamalan has packed a lot of career into a short amount of time. Here he is again with the humble offering of “Split,” a tight, modest thriller where the victims are proactive, the monster is captivating and the plot twist isn’t so much a twist, but a nudge into another plane of storytelling.
The movie opens with three girls, but one is not like the rest. This would be Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a raven-haired loner whose invitation to the party is sent out of good manners rather than good graces. From the beginning, we see that Casey’s survival instincts dwarf those of Claire and Marcia (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, respectively), for when they are drugged by an assailant, Casey attempts a calm and silent escape. It doesn’t pan out and she is also drugged, but I think we can all agree it was a reasonable effort. An unknown amount of time passes, and the girls wake up in a small room made of stone and drywall, half bath included.
Their captor reveals himself to be Dennis (James McAvoy), a ridged man with an unhealthy obsession with young girls. That seems like enough trouble for one movie, but then he reveals himself to be Patricia, a posh woman who is almost as good at making sandwiches as she is at keeping Dennis in check; then, he reveals himself to be Hedwig, a mischievous scamp of nine who fears that kissing a girl runs the risk of impregnating her. We later find out his root personality is that of a man named Kevin. Some characters have layers; this guy has problems.
McAvoy is surprisingly good as the multifaceted monster, and I use “surprisingly” not as a knock against his capabilities, but in reference to the many ways the character could have gone wrong. I couldn’t help but imagine Nicholas Cage as Kevin, wigging out and foaming at the mouth as he transforms from one personality to another. McAvoy plays it subtle, without rubber-faced theatrics. We know he’s Patricia before he speaks in a feminine voice, because his posture tightens, his eyebrows loosen up and his gaze becomes lighter. Good on McAvoy for having the guts to tackle a role this ludicrous, and even more so for pulling it off.
Kevin is too interesting and fun to be scary, but scaring us doesn’t seem to be Shyamalan’s intention. He puts far too much work in having both Kevin and Casey explained to us—Kevin through his psychiatrist and Casey through a series of flashbacks—and the more we understand something, the less there is to fear. This leads to a truly surprising finale, where we learn that our understanding of the characters is important, but not for the reasons we suspected.
Like its villain, there are a multitude of horror sub-genres living inside “Split.” There’s the slasher, the torture porn and the monster movie, to name a few of its dominant personalities. Its Kevin—its true self—isn’t a horror film at all, but a dual character study of two broken children who have grown into splintered adults, one more literally than the other. This is the film’s real twist: its sincerity and human touch.
3.5 out of 5 stars