M. Night Shyamalan just can’t leave well enough alone. In “Split,” the writer-director’s new psychological thriller, “well enough” is James McAvoy’s remarkable (if distractingly showboat-y) turn as the film’s villain Kevin, a man with dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder).
Kevin’s 23 distinct alters include the effeminate fashionista Barry; the creepy neat freak Dennis; the matronly den mother Patricia; and an inquisitive, hip-hop-loving 9-year-old with a lisp named Hedwig. Hedwig – who seems to be a boy, but has a girl’s name – has a cute habit of dropping the phrase “et cetera” in conversation. It’s an amusing tic that underscores the multifariousness of Kevin’s shattered psyche, while at the same time calling attention to Shyamalan’s writerly affectations and inadequacies.
The conversations that Hedwig has are mostly with Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch”), who along with two other teenage girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) has been abducted by Kevin – or, rather, by Dennis – and locked in a windowless bunker, for reasons that remain obscure until the film’s modestly suspenseful, surprisingly gruesome and extravagantly ludicrous climax.
Shyamalan is known for – and rightly judged by – his endings, and the twist he delivers at the conclusion of “Split,” setting aside a wholly unnecessary teaser tacked on in the last 15 seconds, is only partly satisfying, given that it is not just coldblooded, but also extrapolates implausibly from scientific research about DID. (As a nonspoiler-ish hint, one of Kevin’s alters – but only one – is diabetic.)
The assumption at first is that the girls’ captor has prurient interests in mind. When Dennis takes one victim (Sula) into a private room, Casey whispers to the girl to “pee on yourself” as a defensive strategy. Given Dennis’s germaphobia, the ploy works, although it soon becomes evident that sex slavery is not on the table. But what is?
A better question might be: How does Casey know so much about sexual predators? Shyamalan addresses that over the course of several increasingly sickening flashbacks. He also sheds some light on Kevin’s history by cutting away from his hostages to his ever more desperate sessions with his empathetic psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (the wonderful Broadway veteran Betty Buckley).
Fletcher’s empathetic couchside manner makes for a good counterpoint to the mounting tension occurring at her patient’s home, although she soon suspects that the gregarious, chatty Barry – her previous main contact and Kevin’s “host” personality – has been replaced by one of the other alters.
In fact, she has no idea. Neither, I wager, will you.
It gets complicated, not just because the character’s alters occasionally engage in conversation with each other, but because they also, at times, impersonate one another. Fletcher, who has treated Kevin for so long that she has – ahem – a sixth sense about who she’s talking to, starts to suspect that another, less well-integrated personality may be starting to take over.
There is a certain pleasure, to be sure, from watching McAvoy, who delivers a bravura performance – including a scene-stealing dance as Hedwig and an array of mannerisms, accents and vocal nuance – that is almost worth the price of admission. It’s nicely balanced by Taylor-Joy’s low-key grit as the heroine, although Shyamalan deprives the audience of true gratification, in the heartless way he ultimately dumps her character.
Whether audiences will buy into Shyamalan’s preposterous twist depends on how much entertainment they get out of the mystery that comes before (and just after). For all the outrageousness of Kevin’s alters, the movie falls oddly flat: less tantalizingly enigmatic “et cetera” than “blah blah blah.”
Two stars. Rated PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence, some coarse language, themes of abuse and disturbing behavior. 117 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.