By Jeff Boudreaux
Everyone’s favorite writer/directorial scapegoat, M. Night Shyamalan, returns to rare form with his third critical hit in a row (that’s if you count the first season of Fox’s “Wayward Pines”). In this follow-up to 2015’s darkly funny “The Visit,” Shyamalan gives us a film that’s scarier, while at the same time eliciting just as many laughs from his audience. “X-Men” star James McAvoy gives a tour-de-force performance that’s about as change-of-pace from the actor’s work as you can possibly get. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that the success of this film rests solely on his shoulders, even though he did have help from one of Hollywood’s most inventive minds.
“Split” is the story of Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), a man with one of the worst cases of dissociative identity disorder to ever grace the screen. You see, Kevin is plagued by 23 different personalities, 24 if you count “The Beast,” a talked-about, but never witnessed identity that his mind’s various members laud to no end. Scary right? Well, that isn’t even the best part of it. You see, Kevin Crumb (or identity 0) hasn’t been around in quite some time. He does have an amiable “dominant” personality named Barry, who regularly visits with his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley of “Eight is Enough” fame). Something’s wrong, however, and the shrink knows it. “Barry” has been replaced by two obsessive-compulsive baddies named “Dennis” and “Patricia,” who just happen to enjoy kidnapping teenage girls, and holding them hostage until that prophesied day when personality #24, a.k.a. “The Beast” will surely arrive. I told you this was some scary stuff!
Oh sure, it’s quite comical to witness a shaved-headed James McAvoy in drag as Patricia, the likely leader of Kevin’s consciousness, or “the light.” However, her not-as-nice alter ego Dennis does all of the dirty work, such as chloroforming, tying up, and making the girls undress. I know what you’re thinking, but he’s really just doing the latter because he notices a spot or a crumb on their clothing, and you know how those severe cases of DID coupled with OCD go! Yet, the two manage to keep around their own lackey, namely a harmless nine-year-old that goes by the name of “Hedwig,” who can actually steal the light anytime he likes. Which is why the girls, led by Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy of “Morgan”), think they can pull off an escape by befriending the nearly-retarded “boy.” Confusing? It shouldn’t be because this film is probably one of the best times I’ve had in recent years watching a real-live human being’s descent into absolute madness!
The concept behind “Split” is very frightening, not only for someone to have to go through such a terrible mental illness, but most importantly how it affects others with unspeakable violence and terror. I say this a lot, but Shyamalan certainly knew what he was doing when he cast James McAvoy as Kevin, Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, Barry, et al. This is the proverbial role-of-a-lifetime for this extremely gifted actor, and he quite simply captivates the viewer with his every movement. I doubt he’ll get another opportunity to bear his soul onscreen, as he does here. It’s certainly a pity that he’ll never receive the proper accolades for such a lively performance. If there are any issues that I have with this film, it’s that they made quite the case for making certain that we knew of Kevin’s 23 or 24 personalities. That’s perfectly fine, but what isn’t fine is when only a quarter of them are featured. Not to take anything away from McAvoy’s performance, but I wish that Shyamalan had showcased nearly all of his so-called dynamic personalities. And 23 files on a desktop screen does not count, especially since they weren’t prepared to give us a glimpse of each, not unlike the digital introductions of the forthcoming Justice League in last Summer’s “Batman vs. Superman.”
Nitpick over, I can say that this is one of the most successfully ambitious projects to come out of M. Night’s mind and it has an ending that will undoubtedly please his most ardent supporters. We have to realize that no filmmaker is perfect, and Mr. Shyamalan has received his fair share of criticism and ridicule. What the past two years has proven to me, however, is that this undeniably talented writer-director isn’t ready to ride off into the sunset, with his tail between his legs, nor should he. Yes, he was responsible for critical and commercial failures like “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” and I’m sure he constantly yearned for the glory days of “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” and “Unbreakable.” He’s had several hits and a few misses, but like a true artiste he keeps digging down into that wonderful brain of his to delight and fascinate audiences all over the world. Judging from his recent work, I believe the man is back.
*** (three out of four stars)