“Split ” is a movie in which James McAvoy plays a man with 23 personalities. Some of them are kind. Some are strange. Some are talented. Some are deranged. One is a woman. One is a child. And one of them likes to kidnap teenage girls, lock them in a basement and make them dance naked. As with any thriller, of course, this one from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan chooses to focus on the increasingly scantily clad teenage girls in peril. Forgive me if I’m a little bored already, but not even McAvoy sporting a tight turtleneck and pleated midi skirt while affecting a posh accent as one of the personalities, Miss Patricia, is enough to really save this film.
To be clear, McAvoy is delightfully weird playing the various iterations of Kevin, although it might ruin him as a romantic lead for anyone who revisits “Atonement” after seeing this. It’s actually a shame that the story, which keeps reminding us that there are 23 personalities, only chooses to show the audience about 8 of them for no particular reason.
The story of Kevin and all of his personalities feels like a crazy X-Men spinoff in some ways. He’s being treated by a psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (a perfectly campy Betty Buckley), who believes to her core that people with dissociative identity disorder are actually super humans. She’s staked her career on it and Kevin is her model patient. He usually sees her in the form of Barry, a kind fashion designer, but lately she’s starting to suspect the person visiting her is actually the perverted, OCD alter ego Dennis pretending to be Barry. It’s a construct that should increase the tension immediately (especially knowing that there are three girls in his basement and wondering what he’s capable of), but it never really lands despite some menacing ambiguity in McAvoy and subtle terror from Buckley, who gets some terrific close-ups.
The girls, by the way, are mostly non-entities with the exception of Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey Cook, an outsider even among her friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). With raven black hair and pale, porcelain skin, and a haunted, far-off gaze, she looks like an emo Snow White who has seen some stuff. Indeed, Casey does have a disturbing backstory that we get a peek at through multiple flashbacks to one particularly poignant day in her childhood where her father teaches her big life lessons (and how to shoot a rifle) while deer hunting. This all ostensibly comes in handy when she’s in captivity, but her strategies aren’t nearly as thrilling or resourceful as, say, what we saw in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” which cleverly subverted the tropes of the girl in captivity narrative while still making an exciting film.
Perhaps that’s because the haziness of exactly what Dennis and Patricia and Hedwig (a lispy 9-year-old) and the “beast” they keep talking about are going to do to the girls never becomes real enough to either scare or intrigue the audience. You never want to find yourself in a purported thriller asking yourself out of boredom whether it’s going to be slaughter or rape.
“Split” isn’t a disaster; it’s just all over the place and not nearly as effective as it should be for something with such a good premise and performances. For some M. Night Shyamalan devotees, it’ll be enough though — and that’s not even counting the surprise of the final shot.
“Split,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.” Running time: 116 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.