"Split," while entirely imperfect, is a continued leap in the right direction for M. Night Syamalan, the mind behind "The Sixth Sense," "Signs" and "Unbreakable" (and a few other things we would like to forget about or have already forgotten). In 2015 he made a mild comeback with "The Visit," and now with "Split," Shyamalan wants us to know he still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
There are surprises in his latest but Shyamalan doesn't seem to be running at full speed towards the "gotcha!" moment, as he has done in the past. Here, he is focused on mood and atmosphere, creating uncomfortable tension as the film progresses. It's what he used to do best before creating a series of stinkers and mindless spectacles.
The film begins at a party for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson from last year's wonderful "The Edge of Seventeen"). Her father is picking her and her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) up and he insists on giving Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who was invited to the party out of sheer pity, a ride home.
In the car, the girls are chatting and distracted and don't even notice the man who gets behind the wheel is a complete stranger. Kevin (James McAvoy) wastes no time before knocking them out and taking them captive to his home. Claire and Marcia wake up confused and scared but Casey, forever an outlier with these girls, is far too calm.
There is something going on they don't understand. On the other side of the locked door, they hear conversations and multiple voices, which end up all coming from Kevin. In fact, we rarely see Kevin. He suffers from dissociative identity disorder, harboring 23 personalities. We meet Dennis, 9-year-old Hedwig and the prim Miss Patricia and several other colorful characters that all live within Kevin.
The abduction and captor versus captive elements provide plenty of tension but aren't what make "Split" worth seeing. McAvoy's committed, truly eerie performance is worth the price of admission alone. He seamlessly weaves from one personality to the next, believable as both a 9-year-old boy and a British woman. He gives the characters their own distinct personalities and mannerisms that we come to fully know each one. McAvoy has a great rapport with Betty Buckley, who plays Dr. Fletcher, the leading researcher on his disease. She truly wants to understand Kevin and get to know each personality.
Where the movie fumbles is the final act, which obviously can't be discussed in great length in a review, but Shyamalan gets in his own way trying to bring this thing home. Instead of feeling like the story has closure, it's hard to decipher what the writer-director was exactly going for in his finale.
We get glimpses throughout the film that give us some depth to Casey's life and why she's so introverted and unwilling to let anyone in. It's the most needless aspect of the movie, adding very little and providing a different layer of discomfort to an already lurid film. It's understandable to want to give characters depth and background but Casey's story feels like a tacked-on plot device more than anything else. It's purely a distraction.
Regardless, it's exciting to see a one-time promising director start to make quality work again but you should not buy a ticket to this movie for Shyamalan. This is the James McAvoy show and what a show he puts on.