Review: Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ suffers an identity crisis
M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” is a split decision: It’s not a catastrophe on par with the director’s worst works, marked by the unholy hat trick of “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” (triple woof!), but it doesn’t return him to his former “Sixth Sense” glory.
In it, James McAvoy plays Kevin Wendall Crumb, a man with 23 personalities, or at least 23 accents and wardrobes and ways of slightly differently tilting his head. One is a 9-year-old boy, one is a custodian, one is a woman (shocking!), yet none of them are particularly compelling, a problem with both Shyamalan’s script and McAvoy’s staid performance. (Someone like Edward Norton or Ben Foster would have really chewed this movie up.)
In the film’s potent, unnerving opener, Kevin abducts three teenage girls — played by “The Witch’s” Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson (“The Edge of Seventeen”) and Jessica Sula — from the parking lot of a shopping mall in broad daylight. He brings them back to his basement lair where he holds them captive in between visits with his psychotherapist (Betty Buckley), whose radar should be a little more attuned that something is way off with her patient.
Kevin’s motive with the girls is unclear; he doesn’t want them for torture or sex, though Shyamalan creepily makes sure they all end up in various states of undress. Two of the three girls don’t have much to do but look scared, although Taylor-Joy’s Casey emerges as a full character; she is given a meaty backstory that details her childhood abuse and gives her credence as a survivor. Casey does her best to manipulate one of Kevin’s personalities into helping her escape, and Taylor-Joy’s transfixing performance gives the film its momentum.
Kevin is ostensibly trying to stave off a 24th personality, a monster he calls “The Beast,” though his efforts are increasingly futile. And Shyamalan’s train runs out of steam in the film’s final act as he builds toward an absurd climax. The director has trained his audiences to hold out for a last-second curve in his films, a crutch he’s leaned on far too often, and the doozy here feels more like a cop-out than a grand reveal. (Give the guy a Netflix series; his twists might work better at the end of hourlong short stories.)
“Split” was reportedly shot on a shoestring $5 million budget. There are some rich production details, especially in the scuzzy basement cellar, and Shyamalan’s repeated use of close-ups — especially on Taylor-Joy’s face — is particularly effective. But “Split” doesn’t do enough to overcome its weaknesses, bouncing between a grungy horror exploitation flick, a psychological thriller and a supervillain origin story. For all of its lead characters personalities, the film suffers from an identity crisis.
Rated PG-13: for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language
Running time: 117 minutes