Much has been made about the 2016 thriller SPLIT and how it’s a “return to form” for director M. Night Shyamalan, who also wrote the screenplay. And maybe there’s enough to this picture to gloss over some of the filmmaker’s past sins, however overstated they may have become in cinematic lore. Notwithstanding any such context, SPLIT still has a job to do beyond redeeming an artistic talent and that job is by and large accomplished in classically ridiculous fashion. If nothing else, this movie suggests that Shyamalan may have finally found the right terrain. The next step is effective navigation.
SPLIT opens with its most efficient sequence as a man (James McAvoy) kidnaps three teenagers. One of them is Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), who is having a birthday. Another is Marcia (Jessica Sula), a friend of Claire’s and a hanger-on. The third is Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), an outsider only invited to the party out of pity. They are taken to a nondescript location. Soon, the man begins to exhibit multiple personalities. The film flashes to visits with the man’s psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who fills us in on all the expository details.
SPLIT is by no means a cautious thriller. It is best viewed as a chunk of exploitation cinema, with an attractive cast running the gauntlet and gradually losing clothing. Any treatment of dissociative identity disorder is intensely problematic if one takes it the least bit seriously. It is referred to in acronym and Shyamalan uses it as a springboard for other things he considers important, namely his signature twist. It’s also a catalyst for McAvoy’s performance. And there is something to said performance, especially given the ecstatic relish the actor slathers on every spoken word.
But honestly, it’s Taylor-Joy who really steals the show. Her quiet tenacity is reinforced by an interesting backstory and an innate ingenuity. She stands in contrast to Claire and SPLIT would’ve benefitted by exploiting their differences more, but that’s not the point. Nor is the point to exploit the necessary psychosexual tension that exists both inside and outside the mind. For all Shyamalan’s Hitchcockian fanning, he doesn’t cross the distorted line between sex and terror. He attempts it in pieces and that’s a plus, as SPLIT’s liaisons with the dark side account for its best moments. But these, too, are undone by an ending that imposes a ho-hum future in no uncertain terms.