You have to expect the unexpected from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. From his incredible The Sixth Sense to Unbreakable and even the less impressive The Village and the abysmal After Earth, Shyamalan continues to surprise with his supernatural-leaning films. With Split, he stays close to formulaic scare tactics, but only to a point. There’s an early scene in a car park that takes a dig at modern society, but it’s the only time you will feel a modicum of ease. Thereafter, Shyamalan builds suspense and keeps you guessing about the fate of three abducted girls, interned in window-less rooms by a disturbed young man.
Kevin (James McAvoy) suffers from multiple personality disorder. His psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), has so far identified around 23 personalities residing in Kevin. There’s Barry, Dennis, Patricia, Orwell, Jade, Hedwig and so on. But now a 24th personality is rearing its ugly, demonic head.
Through Dr. Fletcher’s analysis and discussion with Kevin, we are offered an understanding of the manifestations of dissociative identity disorder. This is much more advanced than the thoughts presented in Three Faces of Eve (1957) or Sybil (1976). The situation can be frightening. But Dr. Fletcher is somewhat gleeful and unafraid of interacting with Kevin. Without her own family, Dr. Fletcher’s patients are her family. Her relationship with Kevin and his 23 “alters” is gentle and materteral.
Teenagers Claire (Haley Su Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are terrified, unsure of the intention of their captor as various personalities come visiting their dingy cell, each conveying a different intent. Of the trio, Casey is the odd one out. She’s brooding and introverted. She’s also not interested in Claire’s sensible suggestion of overpowering their captor and attempting escape. Casey needs to see more, know more before plotting her way out. Her back-story is revealed in flashbacks—as a child, Casey was abused by her uncle, who, following her father’s death, also becomes her legal guardian. The abuse clearly continues, which makes her empathetic towards a kindred soul.
Kevin’s 24th personality, “The Beast”, gains strength and overpowers the other 23. He’s stronger, faster, an animal, a killer. Except when he recognises a fellow victim and exclaims (almost comically), “Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice!” And in a split second the mystical ride Shyamalan has taken you on skids off track.
Suspense remains high and McAvoy works well within this dark subterranean world to slip in and out of his alters with a slight expression change. The female characters are weak in their development, with Casey’s character, in particular, deserving greater depth. But Taylor-Joy brings plenty of vulnerability to the fore.
Of course, since it’s Shyamalan, one is looking out for that big plot twist and reveal (and his cameo), which means you have one eye out on every detail in the background to ensure you don’t miss a trick. I won’t say if this happens or not, but there is a tantalising hook in the last scene. This is still not mint-condition Shyamalan, but he’s heading in the right direction, with some help from McAvoy, who gives Kevin—and 23 other characters—all that he’s got.