Over the past two decades, audiences have witnessed the many personalities of director M. Night Shyamalan in his works. For instance, there’s his previous effort The Visit where I wrote that he seemed to thumbing his nose at both critics and moviegoers based on their disappointment for some of his films. There’s the Shyamalan that was heavily influenced by Spielberg and Hitchcock that contributed to high marks like The Sixth Sense and Signs. We have the comic book aficionado that made Unbreakable pretty special. And there’s whatever was going on his head while writing The Happening and its killer trees and pro hot dog chatter.
With Split, Shyamalan seems in the mode of returning to his former box office glories by throwing in everything that made his blockbusters break through. Not all those traits work, but they’re present in nostalgia inducing manner. There’s the stilted dialogue and characters reacting to dangerous situations that seem off kilter. On the other hand, there are occasional moments of truly well crafted tension. Some of the actors miss the mark, but you wonder if it’s because that’s how Night directed them. Finally, there’s one performance that is pretty awesome to behold and, yes, a major surprise ending that is quite satisfying.
Welcome back to the mixed bag of a world that Shyamalan creates with his pen. Split opens with three teen girls leaving a birthday party. Two of them (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) are your typical kids while Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is more of an outsider. Quickly into our screen time, they are kidnapped by Dennis (James McAvoy), who locks them in a small yet very clean room as he’s got serious OCD. Then, the trio finds out they were also nabbed by Patricia, a proper sounding English older lady. They were also taken by Hedwig, a shy nine year old boy. There are others as these personalities (23 of them) all live inside the head of McAvoy’s Kevin and Casey and her sort of friends have to figure out a way for one of them to let them out.
The action in Split is not confined to Kevin/Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig’s choice of holding rooms. On the outside, he is mostly Barry, an insecure fashion designer who visits his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley). The doctor is an expert in these types of disorders who believes those suffering from it behold powers that are beyond human. And when Kevin warns of a 24th person in that head called The Beast, Dr. Fletcher’s theories may get a chance to be proven right or wrong.
McAvoy is given the chance to play in a universe that any actor would cherish and he’s impressive. There are scenes when he transitions from person to person that are quite enjoyable to watch. It really is his show, though Casey’s character is given a backstory via flashback that helps flesh out her perspective on everything.
There are times in Split that feel like vintage Shyamalan, but they come in infrequent spurts. My criticism here is simple, other than the dodgy dialogue we’ve come to anticipate even in his finest pictures. Split just really isn’t that scary or suspenseful while you’re watching it. Some of the best parts are when the director wants you to laugh… intentionally I think.
I certainly won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that it culminated this otherwise so-so experience with an unexpected surprise. In truth, I’ve thought more about what happened in the last 30 seconds than in the two previous hours and what it could mean in the future. That doesn’t excuse its faults, but at least Night wraps it up on that George Costanza high note.
**1/2 (out of four)