The opening abduction scene in Split, in which Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) kidnaps three teenage girls in a parking lot, displays a mastery of filmmaking economy and grace: M. Night Shyamalan uses only a handful of camera setups and almost no dialogue—just a well-placed thump or two. It tells more with what it doesn’t show, obscured by a raised car trunk or in a rearview mirror, than what it does. Such sophistication is typical of Shyamalan’s work; if his visual language were written, there would be no adverbs, and the sentences would be concise yet dance with poetry.
Of course, Shyamalan is also a writer, and therein lies his trouble: He’s a master of form and a jack of content. Detractors, particularly of less popular films like The Village and The Happening, have more beef with the silly scripts and self-serious tone than the editing or cinematography. I thought he could win over naysayers by directing scripts he didn’t write, but his choices in other people’s material proved as questionable as his own. His dreariest films, The Last Airbender and After Earth, were for-hire. Split, though, is the most Shyamalanian movie in almost a decade, for better and worse. It’s personal and outlandish, with questionable themes, riveting plotting, somber storytelling, a supernatural twist, elegant construction, and fine performances.
Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson are good in that taken-for-granted horror-movie-victim way: They convincingly feel extreme emotions of fear, confusion, and exhaustion. But Anya Taylor-Joy does something more intensely controlled; her character keeps her wits, though just barely, looking for and to create opportunities for escape. The real draw, though, is McAvoy, who has the sort of chewy role actors kill for: Kevin has dissociative identity disorder—23 personalities, with a 24th in the works. We see McAvoy play about eight of these distinct characters, including an older woman, a pompous academic, an extroverted fashion designer, a tense perv, and—the funniest and strangest—a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig. Nothing in Split is as creepy as Hedwig/Kevin’s eager yet contorted face during a hip-hop dance.
A literal cult of personalities develops inside Kevin’s head, calling themselves The Horde, controlling the host body and believing that a Beast is coming to feed on privileged young women. This gets at the film’s central theme: that trauma can break you, but it can also make you, giving you the skills needed to survive under duress and thus an advantage over sheltered suburbanites. In the end, the last girl standing is literally saved by her scars. There might be something discomfitingly romantic about this outcome, as though we should cultivate harm in order to improve ourselves. But maybe it just falls under the rubric of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Worse is Shyamalan’s less-than-scientific understanding of mental illness, giving us some Tales from the Crypt-level pulp: that people with D.I.D. might actually be superhuman, having unlocked the full potential of their brains. They possess here not just different personalities but different physiologies. For example, the fashion designer takes insulin for his diabetes, but none of the other identities have problems with their blood sugar. (Kevin’s psychiatrist, played by Betty Buckley, is a paragon of understanding, fighting to make this perception of D.I.D more widely accepted.)
This means human possibility is limited only by the imagination—as if William Hurt in Altered States needed no hallucinogens or self-deprivation tanks. And this is where, in the film’s mythology (it’s set in the Unbreakable universe), humanity’s monsters have always come from: unrestrained potential run amok. Shyamalan, as he does, considers this pseudoscience solemnly, which might either suspend your disbelief or make you laugh harder. But if he doesn’t know how to write his own stories, he at least knows how to tell them. His long takes, impeccably considered compositions (the cinematography is by Michael Gioulakis), and haunting camera movements maximize the atmosphere, tension and mystery that the script only suggests.