I admit it, M. Night Shyamalan makes me fret.
When it comes to the career of that most Philadelphian of directors, I have become a fretful babushka, wringing my hands at all hours and mumbling to myself.
The writer-director, who consistently shoots his films in the Philadelphia region, has not had a consistent output, to say the least, since he made his mark with 1999’s remarkable supernatural mystery The Sixth Sense.
There have been near-hits, a lot of misses, and a few outright duds (Lady in the Water, anyone?). When he has had commercial success with films like The Village and The Last Airbender, they’ve been attacked by fans and critics.
I thought he was lost forever after the drubbing he took for his 2013 Will-and-Jaden-Smith vehicle, After Earth, a film that the elder Smith, also a Philly guy, has characterized as “the most painful failure” of his career.
I’m glad to say Shyamalan is back. He had already recovered from After Earth with the creepy, stylish, witty TV series Wayward Pines and the 2015 found-footage flick The Visit, his best big-screen thriller in years.
And now comes Split, a remarkably weird and wonderful exercise in psychological terror featuring a virtuoso performance by Scottish actor James McAvoy (X-Men) as a deranged killer named Kevin who is at turns terrifying, grotesque, pitiful, lovable, brilliant, confident, pathetic, happy, sad, mad, and glad.
Kevin is all those – and a lot more. That’s because he suffers from multiple personality disorder (MPD). All told, he has 23 distinct personalities.
Some are sweet, including Hedwig, a 9-year-old boy who loves to dance to Kanye West. Others, like the gregarious fashion designer Barry, are bizarre and obsessive.
Still others are dangerous sociopaths. There's Dennis, a germophobe and would-be rapist, and Patricia, a well-heeled British aristocrat with ice water in her veins, who goes on at length about her plans to make human sacrifices to call forth a grand beast she believes will usher in a new age.
We’re a very long way from The Three Faces of Eve, baby.
I like the fact that Shyamalan has chosen to focus on MPD (or dissociative identity disorder, as it is officially called) long after the controversial diagnosis was last the stuff of newspaper headlines and garish talk-show specials. The distance allows him room to breathe, to get creative, and use goblet-full doses of irony.
Which he does. While it features little on-screen violence, Split is a deeply disturbing film that covers every evil human deed from kidnapping to cannibalism.
But it’s also wildly funny in parts.
The story is simple: Kevin is convinced that the beast, which is, in effect, his 24th personality, is finally ready to arrive. He abducts three teenage girls (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) to offer to the creature as food.
The bulk of the film has the girls interacting with Kevin’s various personalities. Taylor-Joy, who has been compelling in The Witch and Morgan, gets the most screen time. Her Casey is a shy, antisocial girl still recovering from a series of deeply traumatic events in her childhood. She’s a great foil for Kevin: She plays children’s game with Hedwig, challenges Patricia, and stands up to Dennis.
I'm not surprised that Split works as well as it does. Shyamalan’s failures have often been his biggest films, with grand stories and large budgets. This one was made for $5 million and is painted on a small, controlled canvas.
It’s heavy on character and dialogue and spare when it comes to special effects and action. Set almost entirely in an underground bunker surrounded by endless tunnels and corridors, it’s an intensely claustrophobic affair that uses its simple location to great effect.
When it does go above ground, local landmarks that get a turn in the spotlight include the Art Museum, the Philadelphia Zoo, 30th Street Station, the King of Prussia Mall, Martin Luther King Drive, Schuylkill Banks, and Rittenhouse Square.
Split isn’t propelled by violence, but by atmosphere and suspense, with set pieces that focus on each girl’s attempt to escape or to outwit Kevin. Shyamalan outdoes himself here, layering the film with exquisitely crafted cat-and-mouse sequences that recall Hitchcock’s best work.
The film is weakest when it comes to Casey’s backstory, which is handled with fragmented flashbacks that feel hackneyed, even trite. Equally unconvincing is the character of Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s MPD-obsessed therapist. She’s so desperate to prove MPD is real that she treats Kevin as a star pupil and seems far too blind to her patient’s propensity to violence.
Shyamalan has carved an interesting niche for himself with a series of thrillers that don’t fit neatly into a particular genre. Best described as explorations of the fantastique, works such as Signs, Unbreakable, The Village, and Split all are grounded in a concrete, if not entirely credible, scientific reality. When they work – and often that’s when they aren’t weighed down by absurd twist endings – they are truly exhilarating, fun, and memorable.