Through the ups and downs of his career, the name M. Night Shyamalan has always been synonymous with one thing: twist. While watching his films, it's easy to start wondering what twist is coming, and it can get in the way of what's actually on screen. Which is a shame when the filmmaking and performances are particularly exceptional, as they are in the multiple-personality psycho-thriller "Split."
Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy shine as prey and predator who understand each other far more than they know.
McAvoy ferociously sinks his teeth into the role of a troubled young man who developed dissociative identity disorder as a coping mechanism to deal with a turbulent, abusive childhood. For the most part, he has kept his 23 personalities in control with the help of an understanding therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but the darker proclivities take over, and he kidnaps three teenage girls.
While McAvoy is known for his dramatic roles and as the young Charles Xavier in the "X-Men" franchise, here he's let off the leash and allowed to show off his loud, campy, unhinged side. It's a fine performance. Each of his characters has unique gestures and facial physicality, and McAvoy slides seamlessly from one to another.
Dr. Fletcher has gained her patient's trust by believing in the autonomy of each persona and suggesting that the condition could reveal a higher evolution of humanity, positioning the mental disorder as almost supernatural powers. Buckley is wonderful, and casting her is a nice nod to "Carrie" in which Buckley had a similar role.
Kevin (or is it Dennis?) meets his match in Casey (Taylor-Joy, TV's "Atlantis"), who accidentally happens to be with intended victims Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) at the time of the kidnapping. She's thoughtful, quiet and composed, thinking rather than acting impulsively, drawing on lessons learned from hunting trips with her father and uncle.
Regardless of whether Kevin's disorder indicates a higher evolution, he has the basest of instincts — an appetite for nubile young women. This is a disappointing turn, with Shyamalan retreating to the tried-and-true formulas for this genre. It's tiresome to see yet another movie where yet more young women are stripped and locked in a basement.
Despite this, Shyamalan demonstrates a mastery over the form of the mean-and-lean psycho-thriller, aided in no small part by the smooth-yet-unsettling work by cinematographer Michael Gioulakis. The camera swaps character point-of-view rapidly, inhabiting both victim and kidnapper, watcher and watched. Odd and off-putting camera angles and extreme close-ups emulate the cracks in reality.
Shyamalan brings victim and victimizer together to make a powerful (if a bit facile) statement about drawing turning trauma into strength. That concept is the subtext of the horror genre, and Shyamalan makes it the driving message of "Split."