The career of writer/director M Night Shyamalan has been as unpredictable as his films. Coming to international attention with his third feature, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, the twist in the tail of that supernatural thriller set an audience expectation that all subsequent films would hinge on such a reveal regardless of whether it was Shyamalan’s intention or not.
Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, Devil, After Earth and The Visit followed, all exploring different genres to varying degrees of success or condemnation, and often those films most enjoyed by some were the ones others found most infuriating, but Shyamalan has now come full circle to what is apparently a psychological thriller played as straight as a film about a man with twenty three identities can be.
Recipient of a “mercy invite,” outsider Casey (The Witch and Morgan‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) stands alone and stares at the sky while her classmates enjoy the party. Her pickup delayed, she is offered a lift home along with Claire (Ravenswood‘s Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Skins‘ Jessica Sula) but they are carjacked and abducted, awakening in what seems to be a basement, prisoners of a stranger whose personality changes as often as his outfit.
Taken as a showcase for the talents of James McAvoy, Split is an impressive but entirely unnecessary indulgence, the actor having already demonstrated his ability through his long career from Children of Dune to Atonement to Trance to X-Men: Apocalypse, a series of flawless and convincing performances across genres and styles, and the roles he is given here too slavishly mirror those of John Lithgow in Raising Cain, the abductor (“Dennis”), the female protector of the hostages (“Patricia”), the child (“Hedwig”), and so on.
McAvoy’s most enjoyable scenes are those he shares with his psychiatrist, childhood trauma expert Doctor Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, formerly Carrietta White‘s gym teacher), caring and supportive yet willingly blinded to the danger he presents by her enthusiasm for her subject and the opportunities he represents for publication and prestige, again following the template of Raising Cain, but it is in the basement the bigger problems lie.
One of the major frustrations of Split is the lacklustre company presented by the three unwilling houseguests whose infuriating “generation meh” passivity is perhaps the most astonishing and unbelievable reach of Shyamalan’s script. Presented with numerous opportunities to overwhelm their captor and with a plethora of possible weapons in their cell – a glass vase which could be shattered, a shower curtain to smother him, their high heeled shoes to stab him, their belts to strangle him, the cleaning fluids they are actually handed which could blind him – they offer only token resistance even before he divides them.
Had a failed attempt disheartened the girls leading them to become antagonistic towards each other, offering each other as tokens to save themselves, the film would have been more interesting and require less suspension of critical faculties on the part of the audience, but there are other oversights no less egregious. Despite police reports of three teenage girls having been kidnapped and Doctor Fletcher’s knowledge that one of her patients has a predilection for such and that his current behaviour is erratic and excitable she does not raise the alarm, nor does the security guard whom Casey manages to signal; in fact, there is no indication of any police investigation at all.
The next leap of faith is in the outrageous theories of Doctor Fletcher who proposes that beyond exhibiting different personalities that each can manifest different physiological responses. That one personality that can exhibit an allergic reaction when others do not can be considered a psychosomatic response, however the ability or otherwise to lift great weights is an external physical property which will not be reasoned with by any amount of mental determination in the real world.
Thus, trapped in its own basement cell of expectation it becomes inescapable that despite appearances to the contrary that, yes, Split is indeed another supernatural thriller, an admission which astonishingly claws back some good will when it is finally made obvious that this was Shyamalan’s whole purpose from the outset, but overlong and swerving between tedious and ridiculous as swiftly as McAvoy’s changes, it is tolerable only for him and his many faces.