What does success look like for M. Night Shyamalan in 2017? With The Visit, the excessively maligned director seemed to acknowledge a need to scale back the lofty ambition that tanked his two highest budget, least interesting efforts (namely The Last Airbender and After Earth) but Split fails to further that momentum. Despite an ace performance by James McAvoy, the film fizzles just when M. Night seemed poised to rekindle a spark of his early genius. At this point, another smash on the scale of The Sixth Sense might be too much to hope for. Heck, I’d settle for a Signs.
Split, despite its PG-13 rating, ventures into darker territory than previous Shyamalan fare, and the director struggles to balance the emotional maturity the premise deserves with the endearing, lighthearted humor he’s made his hallmark. The plot revolves around the kidnapping of three teenage girls by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a psychopath with multiple personality disorder (a committedly unhinged McAvoy). His victims include birthday-girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen), best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula, TV’s Recovery Road), and cool-headed outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch).
The terrified trio awakens in a dank, windowless room, where they’re forced to placate the myriad personas of their captor, including a lisping nine-year-old, a buttoned-up British woman, and a Walter White lookalike. The intent is pure pulp, but with its aggressive undercurrent of sexual violence, Splitoften feels flip when it should feel dire. It’s a tonal mismatch that might feel nihilistic in the hands of another filmmaker, but M. Night is nothing if not earnest. The themes he explores, however inartfully, are backed by a respect for the characters unfortunate enough to inhabit this ugly and unfair world.
Sliding in at just under two hours, Split feels oddly overlong and undercooked. The film’s belabored B story centers on analyst Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, Carrie, The Happening) and her complicated relationship with Kevin’s constituents. Involved is a peripheral attempt to dramatize the real-world controversy surrounding the existence of multiple personality disorder (known as dissociative personality disorder in modern medical parlance) and Shyamalan posits an unconvincing supernatural explanation. Fletcher eventually becomes a key player in the film’s messy third act, but her sessions with Kevin feel especially superfluous given the nagging near-certainty that something more interesting is happening to our imprisoned protagonists off-screen.
This specific shortcoming shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; Shyamalan’s strength has never been his screenwriting. But where he committed to the grotesque, Raimi-esque comic mayhem of The Visit, Split feels constantly at odds with itself. Between the dark, erratic script and his light-footed direction, the filmmaker is forced to confront an identity crisis of his own. Is Split meant to be a fun, frivolous genre diversion, a confident comeback piece, or something else entirely? No clear answer emerges, and the question is further muddied by a perplexing postscript that reframes the narrative in the context of M. Night’s career.
Split may not provide the kindling Shyamalan needed to once again set the industry ablaze, but it’s not a bucket of ice water either. The film features a few showpiece sequences of his signature directorial panache, including the girls’ claustrophobic first encounter with McAvoy’s Kevin. With deranged determination, the actor provides a lynchpin that keeps Split together, in spite of even its most glaring flaws — flaws destined to be amplified and snidely derided by the hive mind of internet fandom, which deals only in absolutes. For now, M. Night scrapes by with a minor success and something still to prove. And it’s hard not to root for an underdog.