Split (Universal Pictures, PG-13)

It’s enjoyable enough if you like horror comedy and are willing to indulge this director’s tendency to favor style over plausibility.

The Sixth Sense (1999) wasn’t M. Night Shyamalan’s first film, but it was the first to get widespread recognition. It’s also his greatest success to date, garnering six Academy Award nominations and finishing as a second highest grossing film of the year. He followed it up with the good but not great Unbreakable (2000), and then things started to go downhill, reaching their nadir with the likes of Lady in the Water (2006) and The Last Airbender (2010). Still, the strength of those early films keeps some of us coming back for more, in the hopes that Shyamalan has another The Sixth Sense in him. His latest film, Split, doesn’t reach that level, but it’s enjoyable enough if you like horror comedy and are willing to indulge this director’s tendency to favor style over plausibility.

The number one reason to see Split is the performance of James McAvoy, whose character Kevin gives the film its name: He has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a mental illness that takes the concept of a split personality to extremes. We only see a few of Kevin’s 23 identities (among them a British woman, an insecure child, an earnest fellow with OCD, and a scary, take-charge guy), but it’s still a treat to see him switch from one identity to another, using only his acting skills plus a few props. If McAvoy chews the scenery from time to time, who can blame him? It’s not every day an actor gets to play Jekyll and Hyde and Hyde and Hyde…

Kevin is being treated by a psychologist (Betty Buckley) who believes that people with DID can actually have differing physical characteristics for their different identities—for instance, to be blind in one identity yet have a different identity that can see. She also thinks that DID may convey a sort of superpower on those who have it, allowing them to develop capabilities not available to other people. She also indulges this particular patient beyond all reason and takes risks no psychologist in her right mind ever would, but those are the sort of implausibilities you have to overlook if you want to enjoy this film. (I laughed quite a few times while watching it, as did a good proportion of the screening audience, but I’m not sure all the humor was intentional.)

McAvoy’s performance almost overshadows what would conventionally be called the main plot. Three teenage girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) are kidnapped on the way home from a birthday party and held prisoner by Kevin and his many alter egos. They never know which version of Kevin will present itself next, and he also keeps saying “the beast is coming,” which is not the kind of prophecy that a captive likes to hear. Somewhat oddly, Shyamalan seems not terribly interested in this plot—he keeps two of the teenagers off screen for much of its duration, for instance—yet he still delivers a reasonable execution of some standard slasher film tropes.

Shyamalan is known for his twist endings, and there is both a minor twist (you might think of it more as social commentary) as well as a major reference to one of his previous films near the end of this one. That’s all you’re getting out of me—if you want real spoilers, Google is at your service. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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