By now, we all the know the rap on M. Night Shyamalan — the one time wunderkind who turned out not to be, the media proclaimed “next Spielberg” who turned out to be a laughing stock auteur of loonily awful big budget genre fare like The Last Airbender and After Earth. It’s easy to look at the idea of every announcement of a new Shyamalan film as a threat rather than the promise we thought it would be, but what if I told you that Shyamalan got his groove back? And what if I told you he did so by ditching the half-baked attempts at Hollywood scope and decided to go…small? Split, the director’s newest film (it opens wide in January), isn’t entirely successful, but it’s a weird and audacious act of B-movie craftsmanship. As in his last movie, The Visit, Shyamalan has shown that smallness suits him; it’s actually made him good again.
In Split, three teen girls are kidnapped from a mall, and then locked in the greasy basement lair of Dennis, a sternly menacing man with OCD played by James McAvoy with a manner as shorn and tight as his buzzcut. But Dennis is also Patricia, a prim and proper British woman, the excitably lisping child Hedwig, and Barry, a flamboyant fashion hound. It turns out that they are all manifestations of Kevin, a young man suffering from dissociative identity disorder — the kind of thing they once called multiple personality disorder. Kevin has 23 distinct personalities, but three– Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig — have taken over. They keep talking about preparing for the coming of “the Beast”, a fearsome 24th personality, with one of the girls being essential in its arrival.
There’s no denying that Split, with its equation of mental illness to murder, is a #problematic film, but there’s also no denying that’s a fun one too: a campy slice of grindhouse pulp madness. It’s Shyamalan’s throwback to ‘70s psycho thrillers — not the well-known ones, but obscure oddities like The Baby that revel in batshit insane left-of-center explorations of psychosis. It helps that he’s got an ace in the hole in McAvoy, who plays the role with what can only be called subtle hamminess. It’s a BIG role, one that allows McAvoy play multiple characters with a ferocity that swallows the screen and everything in his path. There’s a go-for-broke, committed full-throttleness to his performance that, at first glance, seems like he’s going full ham, but the beauty of it is that there’s a quicksilver effortlessness to the way he shifts between “characters”; McAvoy might be going broad with the role, but he also makes each feel distinct, excitingly alive.
If only the rest of the movie was as alive as McAvoy. The three female leads are fairly bland, with only Anna Taylor-Boyd, The Witch’s hauntingly ethereal lead actress, making the most of her underwritten role. She’s essentially this film’s Final Girl, but Taylor-Boyd isn’t really asked to do anything except look scared or resilient. Luckily, she draws you in — how could you not with those expressive wide eyes of hers? — but you wish an actress as good as her got something more to do. The movie sprinkles in flashbacks to her childhood that explain why she’s so different from the other two girls, but they feel gratuitous and ill-judged.
Where Split tends to grind to a halt are when the film moves outside that skeezy dungeon. The movie frequently cuts away to focus on Kevin’s shrink (Betty Buckley), who comes across as a more sweetly caring Dr. Loomis, trying to figure out which of Kevin’s “good” personalities is e-mailing her every night asking to talk. These are the scenes where Shyamalan indulges his penchant for dry sciency goobledygook and they tend to drag; there’s one too many repetitive scenes of “Barry” swinging by to calm the doctor’s nerves.
Luckily, these scenes don’t kill the movie — only slow it down. Split builds a creepy B-movie thrall as it goes along, and if it’s never actually scary, it’s still pretty entertaining. Shyamalan is a canny orchestrator of low-key mayhem. The movie embraces its down and dirty spirit, presenting as with lurid, campy thrills. It’s grows sillier the more it goes, but it’s a gripping, involving silliness. Split is cheeky bad taste sensationalism with a grotty exploitation soul. It’s nice to see “next Spielberg” embrace his true calling.