Movie Review: “Split”

James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley, Brad William Henke
M. Night Shyamalan

I kind of feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. Despite the fact that the majority of his directorial efforts make people want to drown kittens, I want him to prove his doubters wrong. Yes, this reeks of Stockholm syndrome, but it is true just the same. Somewhere in that head of his is another killer story.

But “Split” isn’t it. Shyamalan explores some interesting ideas about the true worth of a person, the power of belief, and the lengths that the mind will go to normalize things that just aren’t normal (insert your own current events joke here), but the whole turns out to be much less than the sum of its parts. He also pulls a stunt at the end that seems cool in the moment, but sad once removed from the moment.

Kevin (James McAvoy) is a horribly broken man. As a result of childhood trauma, he has developed 23 different personalities, but with the help of therapist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), he has managed to keep them in check and live a normal life, all things considered. One day, though, one of the more dominant personalities assumes control and kidnaps three teenage girls in a mall parking lot. This personality assures the girls that he won’t hurt them, but that is only because he is saving them for The Beast to do with them what he will. Doctor Fletcher has heard about this Beast for years but considers it a bogeyman story the dominant personalities tell the others to keep them in check. The girls’ best chance to escape appears to be Hedwig, the youngest personality in the bunch who has aligned himself with the other dominants.

There were several moments where the audience laughed at things that weren’t supposed to be funny. It isn’t right, but it is understandable. Shyamalan hasn’t had a hit in 15 years, and even though he’s kept a low profile lately (doing “Wayward Pines” for TV was a nice move), he still has a pretty big target on his back. (Some critics still haven’t forgiven him for the incompetent film critic in “Lady in the Water.”) If he missteps, even a little, he will get called out for it. It’s the price of making your name as the ‘twist ending’ guy, apparently.

Luckily for him, McAvoy is all in as Kevin. The scene where he, as 9-year-old Hedwig, takes Casey (“The Witch” darling Anya Taylor-Joy) up to his room so she can watch him dance is an instant addition to McAvoy’s highlight reel. He handles the multiple accents and voices effortlessly. Taylor-Joy makes the most of a pretty thankless role as well. Her facial expressions are the epitome of the phrase ‘still waters run deep.’ She doesn’t say or do much, but it’s clear that she is constantly sorting out her predicament.

One thing that “Split” underscores, a point that tends to be dismissed, is Shyamalan’s ability behind the camera. He wrenches more tension out of this script than it deserves. If he is willing to let someone else drive when it comes to the story, he could be a modern-day Hitchcock. Dude has skills, but he would do his brand wonders by directing someone else’s script. Hitchcock wrote as well, but his most well-known films are the ones where he only directed. Food for thought.

By the time the credits roll, it appears that “Split” was designed to repackage Shyamalan and remind us of his strengths. That makes sense, but the manner in which it was hammered home at the end is arguably one of the most cynical things you’ll see this year, and we’ve already seen a lot of cynical stuff this year. Perhaps it’s time that he try his hand in a new genre. I bet he could make a killer Marvel movie.