M. Night Shyamalan has always been synonymous with one thing: the twist ending. While watching his films, it’s easy to spend time wondering how he’s trying to fool us, and it can take away from the power of what’s on screen. Which is a shame when the filmmaking and performances are exceptional. In the multiple-personality thriller “Split,” Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy shine as predator and prey who understand each other far more than they know.
As Kevin/Barry/Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig/Orwell/Jade, McAvoy sinks his teeth into the role of a troubled man who developed dissociative identity disorder as a coping mechanism to deal with an abusive childhood. He kept his 23 personalities in control with the help of a therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who has gained her patient’s trust by suggesting that his condition could reveal a higher evolution of humanity. But his darker proclivities have taken over, and he kidnaps three women to satisfy those urges.
McAvoy is delightful in this film, showing off his loud, campy, unhinged side. Each of his characters has unique gestures and facial physicality, and McAvoy slides seamlessly from one to another in single takes.
Kevin (or is it Dennis?) meets his match in Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teen who happens to be with intended victims Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) at the time of the kidnapping. She’s thoughtful and composed, thinking rather than acting impulsively, drawing on lessons learned from hunting trips with her father and uncle.
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While Kevin’s disorder could indicate a higher evolution, he has the basest of instincts — an appetite for nubile women isn’t exactly original. He’s a fascinating character, but Shyamalan retreats to the tried-and-true formulas for this genre. It’s tiresome to see yet another movie where yet more women are stripped and locked in a basement.
Despite this, Shyamalan demonstrates a mastery over the form of the thriller, aided by the performances of McAvoy, Taylor-Joy and Buckley, and smooth-yet-unsettling camera work. The camera swaps character point-of-view rapidly, inhabiting both victim and kidnapper, watcher and watched. As the tension ratchets up, odd camera angles and extreme close-ups emulate the cracks in reality.
Shyamalan brings victim and victimizer together to make a powerful (if facile) statement about drawing power from pain, turning trauma into strength. That concept is the subtext of the horror genre, and Shyamalan smartly makes it manifest as the driving message of “Split.”
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language. 1:57. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.