SPLIT: The latest mind-bending, twisty thriller from M. Night Shyamalan of “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs” fame delivers the goods on intelligent scares done in mostly tasteful fashion, but be aware this is his darkest story ever until its memorable conclusion. YES, if you can handle intensely creepy atmosphere – and be warned it might be a trigger for anyone who ever suffered abuse.
There’s no filmmaker today who loves to throw audiences for a loop more than M. Night Shyamalan. For a while it worked, with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs” all considered classics, and “The Village” also has its strong advocates, including myself. But following those four gems, he proceeded to make some of the worst movies of all time in “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.”
Shyamalan finally had to regroup in 2014 if he ever hoped to work again, and teamed up with low-budget-horror impresario Jason Blum, who revolutionized the horror genre by creating a string of hugely profitable hits (the “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” series) that were made for $5 million or less. The result was the fantastically fun thriller “The Visit,” a tremendous comeback that grossed nearly $100 million worldwide off a tiny budget.
This weekend, he teams up again with Blum for the new thriller “Split,” which follows the battle of wills between three teenage girls and a deranged man with 23 personalities who kidnaps them and traps them in a massive, creepy underground compound. The result is smartly written and expertly acted by James McAvoy as the kidnapper who displays eight personas in the course of the film, and Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey, the girl who is the sharpest at fighting back.
Yet it’s also deeply unpleasant for much of its running time, as it’s hard to call a movie centered on the endangerment of young women a crowd-pleaser. Of course, that works sometimes — as in the classic “The Silence of the Lambs,” but in this case it feels like the movie isn’t walking the line just right.
Shyamalan has the class to keep the threat largely psychological, with most of the actual violence shown in the briefest of shocking glimpses or implied off screen, but nonetheless it’s much more unsettling than truly entertaining until the last few minutes’ series of surprising twist endings.
The film opens with three teenage girls — Casey, Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) — as they wait in a car for one of their fathers outside a shopping mall. But instead of the dad showing up, a creepy stranger (McAvoy) slides behind the wheel, dons a mask to cover his face and mouth, and knocks all three girls out with a spray.
They awaken in a creepy underground lair and soon realize that the creep has a never-ending change of personalities ranging from a mentally challenged man named Hedwig to an upper-crust British woman named Patricia. As Marcia and Claire freak out and attempt their own futile escapes, Casey manages to know how to manipulate his mind and gather clues that might add up to saving her life.
The reason that Casey is better prepared than her friends stems from her creepy childhood, in which a sleazy uncle tricked her into being sexually abused as a young girl. Shyamalan unspools the revelations masterfully through a string of partial flashbacks to a long-ago hunting trip, but his tasteful restraint here also still might leave viewers with the queasy uncertainty of whether it’s justified to create a thriller out of such a tragic topic.
Adding an extra level of intrigue is the presence of Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the kidnapper’s psychiatrist, who believes that people with multiple personalities might hold the key to discovering the untapped possibilities of the human mind. A third story thread of the film — alternating with the intense battle of wills between Casey and the kidnapper, the childhood flashbacks — follows the bizarre therapy sessions that the man’s various personas keep emailing to request.
Ultimately, Fletcher and Casey each come to realize that the true thing to fear about him isn’t the 23 personalities they already know — it’s a brewing 24th identity he calls “The Beast” that combines all his other traits together into a mindset of overarching, near-superhuman evil. And they have to beat the clock before “The Beast” announces his presence for good.
That five-paragraph description – which leaves plenty more to be experienced – is an example of how complexly plotted “Split” is. It’s a fascinating tale and will likely keep viewers on the edge of their seats throughout, but it still feels like Shyamalan is using the tragedies of child abuse, sexual abuse and psychological trauma to achieve those thrills, and it is a valid question to wonder whether it’s exploitative as a result.
This is a movie that also points out the shaky moral sense of the MPAA ratings board, which gave it a PG-13 rating because “Split” has hardly any foul language and much of the violence is off-screen or barely shown, leaving the worst horrors to viewers’ imaginations. But its relentless sense of dread and the scenarios depicted should merit warning that this is a movie that’s creepier than most, and it’s probably a good idea for anyone who’s ever suffered from severe abuse to avoid risking that “Split” is a trigger.
To be fair, the final ten minutes deliver a powerful coda to the film, as we come to learn where the girls have been held captive and find that there are two final twists. The last line of the movie in particular had the entire audience audibly startled, with one rabid Shyamalan fan literally shrieking, “This is his best twist ever!” I’d say it’s definitely a gasp-inducing one that longtime Shyamalan fans in particular will be thrilled by.