M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation for unexpected plot twists may falter after “Split,” his second collaboration with Blumhouse Productions. “Split” is burdened with a story that treads dully familiar ground. The kidnapped-girls-in-peril thriller strives for originality with a spin on dissociative identity disorder (DID), but instead it plays like a stale, unfunny retread of “United States of Tara.” Only James McAvoy’s multi-faceted performance saves the movie from complete mediocrity.
After a downright wholesome teen birthday party, three girls are kidnapped in broad daylight: friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and difficult outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”). Their captor (McAvoy) locks the trio in a windowless room, then proceeds to frighten and baffle them. One minute he’s bespectacled and obsessive about cleanliness, the next he’s presenting as female, and later he acts like a nine-year-old boy.
The captor’s appointments with his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), reveal that he has dissociative identity disorder — what used to be called multiple personality disorder — and is hosting a whopping 23 personalities, known as “alters.” His real name is Kevin, although he visits the doctor as Barry, but might currently be Dennis in disguise. (Her name was Magill, but she called herself Lil…)
Kevin’s dominant identity Barry has been overcome by unwelcome alters he previously suppressed: Dennis and Miss Patricia are responsible for the teens’ abduction, hinting that the girls will be handed over to a mysterious entity known as The Beast. As Dr. Fletcher tries to figure out exactly what happened to Kevin and how it can be fixed, Casey’s flashbacks to childhood indicate she isn’t quite as unspoiled and naive as her captor believes the other girls to be.
The story hinges on Dr. Fletcher’s belief that in some DID patients, physical differences occur between identities — for example, a blind woman could have an identity who could see. “Split” paints mental illness and child abuse as a potential source of power, possibly even supernatural power. It’s not difficult to see where that might pay off, particularly in a Shyamalan film.
Suspense should be driving the action, as the three girls plot escape methods from their curious prison. But clunky foreshadowing and excessive coincidences dilute the thrills. In addition, the pacing slows to a crawl in scenes where Dr. Fletcher is relegated to an explanatory role, reciting big chunks of DID theories upon the audience, much like Morgan Freeman’s lectures in “Lucy.”
“Split” avoids being entirely tedious thanks to McAvoy’s standout performance as he cycles through those personalities, sometimes from line to line. His transformations are so extreme and believable that it feels as though the bones in his face are shifting to accommodate each identity. At the same time, many of the personalities are too similar to each other to generate much interest on their own.
Unfortunately, other characters in “Split” have less depth than the alters. The movie relies too heavily on close-ups of Casey’s face in lieu of a strong script. The other girls get only cursory backstories. Buckley has a delightful one-liner about Hooters, but is otherwise relegated to standard psychiatrist-speak.
“Split” does contain a fascinating visual appeal. Scenes of the lavish staircase in Dr. Fletcher’s office seem like style for style’s sake, but every detail counts in the captor’s windowless lair, where no two rooms look alike.
Of course, Shyamalan can’t resist a surprise ending, but it’s not a twist so much as a glib punchline, possibly meant to distract the audience from an otherwise vague and uninspiring resolution. “Split” could have been an abduction thriller, a psychological drama, or perhaps a twisted action film. Instead, its attempt to combine all these elements leads to an ending less satisfying than a dozen more McAvoy personalities.
“Split” opens in January 2017. It premiered at Fantastic Fest.