In 2015, M. Night Shyamalan executed the biggest twist of all. Following a slew of critical and commercial disasters, Shyamalan produced…a hit. The Visit, a found footage old people horror-comedy, connected with critics and audiences, turning its paltry 5 million dollar budget to a whopping near-100 million international haul. More importantly, it signaled the return of one of the most unique voices in the genre: the king of the twist. And Split, a thriller about an abductor with a fractured personality, proves that he’s here to stay.
Pitched as a spiritual sequel to Unbreakable, Split plays coy with its central conceit. Suffering DID (dissociation identity disorder), formerly known as split personality disorder, Kevin (James McAvoy) is not quite himself ever since an “undesirable” side of him has taken the light. Most commonly a lisping fashionista with work ethic named Barry, Kevin’s body has more recently allowed Dennis’ persona to take charge. It’s Dennis we meet first, forcing his way into a vehicle and taking Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and two of her underwritten peers hostage.
Dennis, like his caring and well-written psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), believes that DID is oh-so-much more than a mood disorder, cocksure in the dogma that there are super-powered abilities lying dormant in the multitude of Kevin’s personalities. As Dr. Fletcher protests to an unconvinced scientific community, through the power of the mind, someone with DID is able to change their body chemistry simply through belief.
Joined by Patricia (a malevolent British woman) and Hedwig (a Boston-accent-sporting 9-year old with red socks), Dennis is plotting to put that theory to the test. Together, the three personalities plan to unlock the 24th, an animalistic amalgam known simply as “the Beast” – a nightmarish demon strapped with muscles, significantly taller than the others and with the ability to scurry along walls like Spiderman. This is where our three hostages come into play as “The Horde”‘s plot involves feeding the Beast the bound sacrificial captives, much to Casey and the others’ chagrin.
As the slew of distinct personas, from the effeminate Barry to the deadened Denis, James McAvoy is a triumph. Creating no less than five recognizable characters, he slides effortlessly between his theatrical creations like a stage magician with pockets full of KY Jelly. This sleight of hand is possible even without a wardrobe change, as his posture, accent and facial expressions bleed character, but putting McAvoy in a turtleneck and pendant is nonetheless an inspired costumier maneuver. As he shifts, McAvoy proves chameleonesque flitting from one series of traits to the next and even when Split becomes increasingly ludicrous (enjoyably so I will add), McAvoy’s total dedication to the role(s) helps to make the absurdity effortlessly entertaining.
Speaking of absurdity, Split makes little excuses as it pivots from a bonafide physiological study the likes of the short-lived Showtime series The United States of Tara to a balls-to-the-walls exploitation film. As we get closer to curtain, Shyamalan calls out, “to hell with it” shucking the grounded nature of Split to pursue something totally bogus that works despite its tonal breaks and blatant silliness. Through it all, he carefully lays bread crumbs pointing to a conclusion that is so pitch perfect that it makes everything potentially dubious about Split work all the better.
That last minute turn of the knife is so unexpected, so devilishly delivered that it may retrospectively made you feel bad for ever mocking the director’s predilections for late in the game screw-ups. Except when it was the trees. That was unforgivable. That being said, Split just might contain Shyamalan’s most shocking twist and in a universe where “I see dead people” has been an overused punchline since before the turn of the century, that’s saying something.
In effect, Split confirms Shyamalan is himself a creation of competing personas: the layered storyteller and the film troll who just can’t help himself. Though Split lacks the comedic punch of The Visit or the disquieting haunt of The Sixth Sense, it has an energy all its own. One that Shyamalan seems intent to disrupt with left-field absurdities. Like Quentin Tarantino before him, the Indian director even manages a useless cameo as a wing-loving Hooters patron. Cuz yeah, Split is that kind of movie.
When all is said and done, Split purposefully doesn’t resolve all of its lingering issues – the lack of a critical resolution regarding Taylor-Joy’s Casey is undeniably frustrating – but then again, it doesn’t try to. In some key places, that appears to be the entire point. Shyamalan seeks to massage Split into something more than a mere solitary film and in doing so creates a laugh out loud comedic moment sure to be remembered for the entirety of 2017. Of course the king of twists is gonna fork in one sooner or later and Split‘s could just be his best one yet.
CONCLUSION: In addition to being a platform for James McAvoy to display his considerable range in truly zany fashion, ‘Split’ represents the once fallen M. Night Shyamalan solidifying his place as the king of twists in this unsettling and campy delight.