OP-ROB RATING: BENCH
“Split” is the latest film from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan since 2015’s “The Visit”, which I reviewed here. With another thriller, Shyamalan seems to be retracing his steps trying to regain the success of his early career. “Split” stars James McAvoy as Kevin, a man with dissociative identity disorder who drugs and kidnaps three teenage girls after a birthday party. Because of Kevin’s psychological disorder, there are many different personalities that are revealed throughout the film. The kidnapping is executed by an intense and methodical personality named Dennis. The girls awaken in a creepy, sparsely decorated underground bunker consisting of a hallway and a few rooms: there are no windows.
Backstory is only given for one of the three girls whose named Casey (Ana Taylor-Joy). The other two girls, played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are largely tertiary characters. Casey differs from the other girls in that she has been through significant trauma as a child and is very introverted. In the first couple of sequences several of Kevin’s personalities are introduced including a stern older woman named Patricia, and an unassuming nine-year-old boy named Hedwig. Casey quickly figures out that she can manipulate Hedwig in order to try and escape the bunker. The story becomes more complicated when Kevin ventures out his domicile and visits his psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). The personality that interacts with Dr. Fletcher is named Barry, an upbeat aspiring fashion designer. In separate scenes with Dr. Fletcher we discover that Kevin has 23 different personalities. We actually are not introduced to the original “Kevin” personality until the tail end of the movie, along with a personality called “The Beast”. As many of the different personalities tell the girls, they are food for “The Beast”. The tension of the film builds around the question of whether or not Kevin can actually become a superhuman creature.
The main problem with “Split” is not inherent within the plot, or acting. Both are acceptable and even above average for an M. Night Shyamalan movie. The problem is rather that Shyamalan fails to bolster the film with his own distinct charm. In the director’s three best films, “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”, and “Signs” he builds the story up to a final climax complete with a crafty revelation to the audience; something small or seemingly insignificant earlier in the film suddenly because crucial to the story. The other Shyamalan feature is his skillful use of the City of Philadelphia and its surrounding areas. Shyamalan made an extra effort to authentically display Philadelphia in “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” and in the case of “Signs” Newtown and Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The most memorable scenes from those movies occur in beautiful areas such as St. Alban’s street in South Philly, Franklin Field at Penn and the vast countryside north of the city. “Split” lacks both of Shyamalan’s most redeeming qualities as a director. The “twist” ending is unoriginal and related to “Unbreakable” and the majority of the location scenes are shot at night along US Route 13 outside of the Philadelphia Zoo…
While “Split” lacks the best qualities of Shyamalan’s early films, it does have a few positive aspects. McAvoy is intriguing to watch as he rotates between personalities displaying the full gamut of his acting ability. Ana Taylor-Joy is equally as impressive portraying Casey, the damaged young girl. However, the most effective scenes in “Split” occur in the flashbacks providing Casey’s backstory. In these flashbacks we discover that Casey was molested by her uncle. In a series of scenes Shyamalan provides a truly shocking and unsettling picture of an innocent young girl being taken advantage of by her much older relative. Keep in mind that “Split” is PG-13. Yet Shyamalan rises to the challenge and presents this disturbing facet of the film in a subtle yet powerful way. The flashbacks left me far more disturbed than anything having to do with Kevin, and made me wonder if Shyamalan is limiting his own talents by resorting to the supernatural.
With every M. Night Shyamalan film, fans hold their breath in anticipation for a classic thriller like “The Sixth Sense”, or a raging dumpster-fire like “After Earth”. “Split” ranks somewhere slightly above average in the vast spectrum of Shyamalan filmography. The context of “Unbreakable” gives the movie a slight boost in relevance. Yet on its own, “Split” is largely forgettable as a charmless, middle-of-the-road thriller. The question now becomes was “The Sixth Sense” a fluke? Or simply, do moviegoers need to readjust their expectations for the seemingly “multiple-identity” director?
 Examples: All of Dr. Crowe’s human interactions in the “Sixth Sense”, the unusual durability of David Dunn in “Unbreakable”, and the glasses full of water in “Signs”.