Three high-school girls become prisoners of a very peculiar captor in Split, a new thriller by M. Night Shyamalan that — wait for it — has a supernatural twist or two in store for viewers. Mental health advocates won’t be giving any awards to a film that plays up fears surrounding those with dissociative identity disorder (DID), more commonly known as split-personality disorder (at least no one refers to our troubled villain, energetically played by James McAvoy, as “schizophrenic,” which is a different thing entirely). But genre fans should embrace what is arguably the director’s most satisfying picture since The Sixth Sense. In some quarters, it will generate talk of a comeback for a filmmaker who has suffered both critical drubbing and box-office humiliation over the past decade.
Coming off February’s The Witch, Anya Taylor-Joy leads the trio of prisoners as Casey, a troubled loner who just happens to be in a car with two popular students (Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson) when they are kidnapped by a stalker. The three wake up in a rough-hewn cell with a mysteriously pristine bathroom, and McAvoy’s character enters, almost terrifyingly stern in all-black clothes and a shaved head. Soon, he is finding reasons to make them strip to their underwear, telling them they are “sacred food” meant for an unnamed creature whose arrival is imminent.
We see before the girls do that this kidnapper is more than he seems. The film follows him to the office of Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a specialist in DID, where he presents an entirely different personality, that of a flamboyant fashion designer named Barry. Barry, or one of the 23 personas who share space in his head, has been emailing every night to set up emergency meetings with Dr. Fletcher, but by the time they meet, he assures her nothing is wrong.
The girls first encounter Barry’s multiple identities in a cross-dressing scene that echoes Psycho and demonstrates just how much fun McAvoy is going to have chewing the scenery here, bouncing from one accent and demeanor to another, sometimes with a comic flourish. Only when he appears later in the guise of a lisping 9-year-old boy named Hedwig does Casey realize there may be an advantage to be gained in Barry’s condition: She begins trying to befriend the child, hoping to play him off his more menacing neighbors, and the high-stakes gamesmanship makes for some nail-biting scenes.
Casey’s cellmates are impatient to escape, and push for more direct tactics that get them in trouble. But as the film flashes back to Casey’s childhood, when she hunted deer with her father and uncle, we are drawn in to her more cautious approach, realizing that life has taught her things the sheltered girls don’t know.
In parallel to Casey’s maneuvering, we watch a series of appointments in which Dr. Fletcher conducts her own delicate interrogation — not yet knowing there’s a crime in progress, but sure Barry has a problem he’s not ready to share. Whatever its scientific merits, Shyamalan’s pop-psychology approach makes dramatic sense here, painting a picture of the community of people inside the patient’s mind, each created to help him survive childhood and adult traumas. Some eyes may roll when this talk veers into science fiction, asking if DID sufferers have “unlocked the potential of the brain” and are able to access supernatural abilities. The director’s fans probably don’t need a “spoiler alert” before being told the answer is yes in this case, though one hopes the specifics, very exciting in at least one respect, won’t be ruined for future viewers by those seeing Split long before its release date at this Fantastic Fest preview.
Escalating suspense as Fletcher comes close to uncovering Barry’s crime hits all the right genre notes, veering into outright horror near the end. The director ties themes together at the end with more finesse than usual, letting a couple of meaningful visuals speak for themselves where he might have thrown in a line or two of explanatory dialogue. And as for that final twist, it’s a doozy.
Venue: Fantastic Fest
Production companies: Blinding Edge Pictures, Blumhouse Productions
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus
Director-screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum, M. Night Shyamalan
Executive producers: Kevin Scott Frakes, Buddy Patrick, Ashwin Rajan, Steven Schneider
Director of photography: Mike Gioulakis
Production designer: Mara LePere-Schloop
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editor: Luke Franco Ciarrocchi
Casting director: Douglas Aibel
Not rated, 116 minutes