BY ROGER THOMAS
When a director does good work consistently, one begins to expect things. “The Sixth Sense” came out in 1999 and was nominated for six Oscars including “Best Picture.” He followed up a year later with “Unbreakable,” another strong film with a powerful twist. Then in 2002 along came “Signs.” Some feel that it is less, but I have loved it since I first saw it and the ending always moves me. None of M. Night Shyamalan’s films have quite achieved what those three did but some of the works are better than others; “The Village” and 2015’s “The Visit” are two of the better ones.
Now there is “Spilt.” The title refers to a young man who suffers from a condition that causes him to have twenty-four distinct personalities. At the beginning of the film Dennis, one of his many names, abducts three teenage girls. These frightened young ladies soon discover that their kidnapper is different almost every time they interact with him. Sometimes he is an eight-year-old boy, a woman, a male fashion designer, and the list goes on.
So here is what works in the film. First, James McAvoy is brilliant in his role of multiple characters. I have enjoyed his work since his role in “Atonement” in 2007. More recently he appeared as the young version of Professor Charles Xavier in the “X-Men” films.
The work of Anne Taylor-Joy as one of the abducted girls is also strong. She appeared in the sci-fi horror movie “Morgan” a few months ago. I liked her work in “Split” much more.
The other strength of the film was Shyamalan set the scenes with the girls in a captivating way. I cared about what was going to happen to these three teenagers. All the scenes involving them an McAvoy are thrilling. The moments when the girls are attempting escapes are also enthralling. Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson play the other two captives; they do not have as much to do as Taylor-Joy, but they do a good job of being strong some moments and terrified in others.
On the other hand, there are several things that disappointed me. First, McAvoy’s character goes to his therapist several times throughout the film. Obviously, this is to share information about his condition for the audience. I just found those scenes uninteresting.
Then there are the issues of surprise. Anyone who knows the work of M. Night Shyamalan, is aware that he loves to surprise the audience. In this film, he is keeping several secrets to near the end. Where exactly is the abductor keeping these girls? What kind of job does this man actually do? And what about the monster that the young man keeps bringing up when he talks with the girls? There are a lot of small twists.
Then there is one big twist. That one truly disappointed me. With the smaller ones, some worked better than others, but none of them are as good as some tricks he’s pulled in earlier films. In “Split” the big surprise is not just disappointing, it simply seems inappropriate. Others may feel differently than I did, but for me, it taints the rest of the film in spite of the parts that are stronger.
So the film is ultimately a “split” for me; some good, some bad.
By the way, if you are a fan of M. Night Shyamalan make sure you stay seated as the film concludes. There is a quick reference to one of Shyamalan’s previous films which got more of a response from the audience than anything that came before in “Split.” Is this a sign that the director is returning to his successful roots. I certainly am hoping.
Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.