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Split review: M. Night Shyamalan’s low-budget comeback continues

The director of The Sixth Sense goes grindhouse

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John Baer / Universal Studios

Expectations can be dangerous for filmmakers. Expectations can lead to audiences walking into theaters with their minds already made up, or with their hearts invested in the film they’ve imagined in advance. In that sense, it’s hard to think of any filmmaker that’s struggled more with expectations than M. Night Shyamalan. In 1999, he set a bar for a kind of highbrow supernatural thriller with The Sixth Sense, but his subsequent movies offered increasingly diminishing returns. Soon, audiences walking into a Shyamalan movie stopped expecting a 21st-century Hitchcock, and his name became synonymous with ill-advised cameos, self-indulgent pacing, and the cheapest of trick endings. (Not to mention killer plants and The Last Airbender. Let’s not forget those happened.)

But the writer-director’s past struggles have set the stage for what can now be safely called his cinematic comeback. His latest film, Split, is his second low-budget feature in a row. It focuses on three teenaged girls trapped by a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Like his 2015 feature The Visit, Split riffs on what’s become a common subgenre — the escape room movie. And without the expectations associated with big budgets or prestige drama, Shyamalan gleefully dives into the film’s grindhouse scares head-first. The results aren’t flawless, but Split is nevertheless a tense, exciting thriller anchored by a stunning performance by James McAvoy. And it may just restore Shyamalan fans’ belief in the power of the twist ending.

Yes, I realize it’s ironic to discuss the power of lowered expectations just before lauding a film’s ending, so let’s backtrack. Split begins with Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) leaving a birthday party with two classmates. All three are abducted by Dennis (McAvoy), who locks them up, warning them that something special is in store for them. The girls learn that Dennis is just one of many personalities exhibited by McAvoy’s character — supposedly there are 23 in total, with a 24th on the horizon. That final one is reverentially referred to as “The Beast,” and the girls will be the “sacred food” that brings him into existence… unless they can escape first.

McAvoy’s wonderfully physical performance binds the movie together

Shyamalan has never bothered hiding his adoration of Hitchcock, and in Split, the references start with the movie’s Psycho-inspired title sequence. But like that film, Split only works as well as its villain, and McAvoy delivers one of the strongest performances in his career, shifting between the many personas tumbling around the antagonist’s brain. Dennis is an uptight OCD sufferer who telegraphs violence with his rigidly held body. Hedwig is a lisping 9-year-old who loves Kanye; Patricia, a prim English woman; Barry, a flamboyant fashion designer. The different personalities are thin stereotypes, at best — the brief descriptions above sum up their characters completely, and they’re only given enough nuance for the audience to register them as different entities. But the physicality of McAvoy’s performance binds them together into a single, menacing figure. It’s possible to tell which personality is in control simply by the way he squares his shoulders or cocks his hips, and the performance becomes even more deft in the moments when we see him shift through personalities one after the other, in a kind of persona roulette.

There’s no denying Split is problematic when seen in the larger context of cinema’s use of mental illness as a catch-all boogeyman, and since the first trailers debuted the film has drawn criticism from mental-health advocates and the LGBTQ community. It’s warranted critique, made even more potent given the caricatures that make up McAvoy’s many personalities. But to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just use the dissociative identity disorder that plagues his character as as easy shortcut, nor is he shown to be an unredeemable monster, either. This is a movie interested in psychological trauma and abuse, and the ways people cope in its aftermath. “The broken are more evolved,” McAvoy’s character says at one point — he screams variations on the idea throughout the film’s climax, just in case anybody wasn’t getting the point — and in the world of Split, that doesn’t just refer to villains. Taylor-Joy’s character struggles with it, too.

John Baer / Universal Studios

That idea doesn’t completely resonate as intended, because for all of the fun, games, and thrills Split throws at the audience, it never fully assembles a complete portrait of its heroes. Taylor-Joy was a revelation in The Witch, but here, she’s given a character who mostly just quietly stares, with wide, quivering eyes. The blank-slate passivity is partially due to the narrative sleight-of-hand Shyamalan employs; we learn about Casey’s backstory through a series of escalating flashbacks, and the payoff is predicated upon her character remaining a cipher for as long as possible. But the truth is, Shyamalan has never excelled at writing female characters, and despite his larger thematic aspirations, Casey and her friends often feel like props for the story, devoid of the kind of agency that made Mary Elizabeth Winstead such a stirring hero in the conceptually similar 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Proof that a smaller toolbox is what Shyamalan’s movies have always needed

In spite of those weaknesses, Split works on a visceral level, just out of the sheer confidence in its execution. Shyamalan’s long, slow camera moves and bold framing are as effective as they’ve ever been, and toward the end of the film, he adopts a grittier, almost graphic-novel-inspired look. Taken with McAvoy’s performance, the shift creates an inescapably claustrophobic atmosphere where brutal violence seems just one small step away. This isn’t Shyamalan’s usual trick of ethereal whispers and unease; this is gut-churning tension, and the fact that he’s able to do so much when separated from the soaring budgets of his earlier films feels like proof that a smaller toolbox is precisely what he’s always needed.

And without spoiling anything about the final twist, Split isn’t built around a last-minute reversal or surprise. Its primary story is self-contained, and ends in a way that’s both satisfying and utterly in tune with its own genre heritage. But for the first time in a very long time, Shyamalan seems to know what audiences think of him, and what they might anticipate seeing when they buy their ticket. And he seems game to play along, taking advantage of that history to deploy red herrings and misdirections, hinting at a twist-eriffic payoff when he’s really interested in keeping things honest for once. Split is so straightforward that it feels like a twist of its own, and the film is all the stronger for it. Longtime fans of his work will still find something electric to talk about in Split’s final moments. But I don’t want to say anything more. I wouldn’t want to set any expectations.