M. Night Shyamalan’s last film, The Visit (2015), gave me such a kick, that I found myself eager to see his next, Split, which opened this weekend. But where The Visit was inventive and playfully scary, Split is almost moralistic, and develops a rather peculiar message about empowerment that doesn’t quite work. In Split, three teenage girls are kidnapped at a shopping mall and held prisoner in some dark, windowless, labyrinthine place, by a man with 23 distinct personalities (played by James McAvoy). When he visits his idealistic New York headshrinker (played by Betty Buckley, who's wonderful in this, and whom horror fans will remember as the well-meaning gym teacher in the original Carrie) he presents himself as Barry, a likably awkward neurotic with a penchant for fashion. But of course, Barry is the docile cover for a whole menagerie of malicious personas, two of which have been “banned” from the sessions because they seem to be plotting a takeover of Barry’s mind.
Buckley’s character, Dr. Karen Fletcher, is an expert on Barry’s particular disorder, but she’s become rather precious about it: She lectures—via Skype—to a group of students in Paris about her patients achieving a higher form of existence through this disorder, which, she argues, is a kind of gift achieved only through intense personal trauma, a blessing wrought by a curse. Dr. Fletcher claims to have witnessed patients who can be blind with one identity but sighted with another; she claims another patient has one personality who’s diabetic, while the rest of his personalities are not. In essence, Dr. Fletcher argues, the mind has more control over our bodies than we realize, and our brains have the power to transform us into superhuman gods, if we know how to harness that power. (You can probably see where this is going.)
I don’t ever need to see Split again, but it is a diverting thriller despite its flaws, and to Shyamalan’s credit, he resists the urge to turn the movie into a police procedural (Law and Order and CSI et al have permanently established those kinds of stories as the exclusive domain of television.) Indeed, I kept waiting for a bunch of New York detectives to enter the movie as supporting characters, but they never did. We’re either in the lair with the three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), with Barry (and his various other personalities), or with Dr. Fletcher, who gradually pieces together the fact that something is very, very wrong with her prized patient. (More wrong than usual, that is.)
But Split isn’t nearly as scary or crazy as it thinks it is. Shyamalan has created a monstrous character but isn’t willing to show him at his worst, because he’s so horrifying. (There’s none of the dread we feel, for example, when we see Buffalo Bill in his lair, making dresses out of skin, in Silence of the Lambs.) McAvoy tries very hard, and yet he’s never scary enough, or threatening enough, because Shyamalan wants to humanize him, so he creates another persona called “The Beast”, another identity that is welling up inside of him, one more terrifying and destructive than any other. Because Shyamalan is priming us for the Beast’s big entrance, he must restrain all of Barry’s other personalities (including the ominously docile Miss Patricia, who’s British and wears shawls and long dresses). Shyamalan attempts to grapple with a person who’s both good and evil, but his strategy doesn’t work, because by the end, he’s exhausted our patience.
The strongest scenes in the movie are the first two, perhaps because they are so compact: We see Claire and Marcia with Claire’s dad, at a restaurant, celebrating Claire’s birthday, while Casey, whom Claire has reluctantly invited out of sympathy, stands by a window, staring into the distance. In that scene, Claire bemoans having to invite Casey at all, but then congratulates herself on not being a monster, the kind of mean girl who excludes the weird kid from the party. Then, in the next scene, when the girls are kidnapped, Shyamalan structures it perfectly, resisting the urge to make us jump, instead letting the terror gradually wash over us: As Claire’s unsuspecting father loads gifts into the trunk of the car, the girls get inside: Claire and Marcia in the back, distracted by their phones, and Casey in the front, feeling alone but not being alone. Then a man gets into the driver’s seat: Barry, who’s presumably disposed of the father. The girls in the back don’t even notice right away; it’s Casey who realizes what’s happening, and, in a surprising and fascinating choice, Casey is given a moment to escape but chooses not to.
Casey, we learn through flashback, has suffered in life, as has Barry. And it’s that suffering that both unites them and ultimately empowers Casey to defeat Barry. Split elevates the damaged kid as a kid who has felt the broken reality of the world, unlike the Claires and Marcias of the world, who have lived sheltered, comfortable lives with stable parents. But Split is grasping for profundity in the most obvious way. Perhaps Shyamalan is congratulating himself for resisting cheap scares, and perhaps he’s apologizing for his depiction of people with psychological disorders as mad killers, by elevating the abused child as some kind of hyper-sensitive god. But he’s also given a scientific answer for why all those other movie killers—the Michael Myerses and Jason Voorhees of the world—could never be killed for good; they keep coming back for more teenagers. Perhaps those psycho-killers also possessed this “gift” of transforming into superhuman personas. Shyamalan has concocted a pseudo-scientific explanation for these movie killers, including his own, forgetting that what we don’t understand is always more terrifying than what we do.