M. Night Shyamalan is a gifted stylist and manipulator who’s mostly been skidding for the past decade. For a while, he was the master of the twist ending, and the Kanye West of filmmakers – hitmaker, artist, egotist – which made his commercial and creative failures all the more dramatic. Of course, visionary status is comprised of confidence, talent and, if not originality, then at least the right mixture of influences; Shyamalan often made himself the focus of his films, for better or worse.
With “Split” – his tenth film since breaking through with 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” – the filmmaker seems reinvigorated, following his poorly conceived and received sci-fi effort “After Earth” and low-budget shaky-cam found-footage effort “The Visit” with a return to form of sorts. The slow-build suspense he nurtured in his best work is intact, generating the kind of creeping dread that doesn’t rely on cheap shock-cuts or sharp spikes on the soundtrack. He also does something new, sharing his signature nifty camera moves and serpentine plot maneuvers with a commanding central performance by James McAvoy.
The actor is known for toeing the line between fine, credible acting (“Atonement,” “The Conspirator”) and superstar roles (he’s the young Prof. X in the “X-Men” series), for being a strong presence without being overly showy. “Split” gives him more to do than ever, Shyamalan casting him as a man with more personalities than fingers and toes combined.
We first see him as Dennis, a bespectacled lurker and clean freak, abducting three teenage girls in a parking lot. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) wake up in a locked basement room with two beds and a pristine bathroom. Sometimes, Dennis comes through the door. Sometimes, it’s Patricia, a high-heeled, erudite woman with a chilly stare. Sometimes, it’s Hedwig, a lisping nine-year-old boy free-associating about his socks, and sharing that he loves to dance in his room to, yes, Kanye. McAvoy shifts and blends tones and moods – comedy, horror, wherever the two shall meet – with darting eyes, posture and vocal and physical affectations, expertly cultivating unease.
Shyamalan teases plot points throughout the movie, piecing together a full picture of the McAvoy character one nugget at a time. The young women don’t know what to expect from this guy, other than the worst. Casey is the quiet, brooding loner of the three, not typically part of Claire and Marcia’s clique. So Shyamalan immediately emphasizes her outcast arc, cutting in flashbacks to Casey’s childhood hunting trip with her dad and uncle. She’s also cast as the critical thinker; while the other two want to try to overpower and outrun their captor, Casey deems it wiser to play mind games with Hedwig or Dennis or whoever stops by to creep them out.
Elsewhere, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a noted psychologist, fields emergency talk-therapy visits from Barry, the effeminate would-be fashion designer slice of the McAvoy character’s mind. Dr. Fletcher wouldn’t be a Shyamalan character if she didn’t live on an upper floor of an apartment building with a circular, Hitchcockian staircase. She senses something out of the ordinary is occurring with her patient, but treads carefully and sympathetically – she wants to help him, for sure, but also believes she’s on the cusp of a breakthrough diagnosis. “People are believing more” about this extraordinary case, she says, labeling his psychosis Disassociative Identity Disorder. She knows he has 23 personalities, but is just now learning of a 24th, one she hasn’t seen before, and one teased on the movie poster.
The psychology of “Split” is simplistic and flimsy, and borderline exploitationist in its approach to child abuse. Shyamalan has never been much for subtext anyway, preferring to tailor suspense like an expert dressmaker, prompting his audience to anticipate dread or surprise. (He has a reputation to uphold, I guess.) Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the story, or the plot details within it make logical sense, as long as it works on its own terms, as a tool for emotional manipulation. McAvoy is the vehicle for such functional success, and it’s with a kind of perverse joy that we watch him lord over his subjugates. He ultimately overshadows the classical Shyamalan storytelling machinery, which is no small feat.