If tour-de-force performances alone made great movies, then “Sixth Sense” writer & director M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” (* OUT OF ****) would be one of the best. Instead, Shyamalan’s twelfth movie qualifies as an unintentionally hilarious, multiple identity disorder, abduction chiller about a colorful fruit loop bristling with more identities than you can count on fingers and toes together. As the traumatized casualty of an abusive mom, woebegone protagonist Kevin Wendel Crumb (James McAvoy) has forged a ‘Horde’ of personalities to serve as a bulwark against grim reality. Predictable, derivative, and ultimately preposterous, “Split” contains McAvoy’s nuanced performance as well as Shyamalan’s usual standard-issue surprises. Indeed, McAvoy has a field day chewing the scenery as a wacko with 23 personalities who is gestating number twenty-four. Basically, this charming but deranged psycho abducts three pretty young things from a Philadelphia shopping mall and confines them for his own culinary delight in an underground facility from which escape is virtually impossible. Compared with other movies about split-personality psychos, “Split” does feature a looney tune with a greater number of identities than any other movie. McAvoy’s chameleon-like capacity to shift from one identity to another in the flick of an eyelash is as fluid as if he were genuinely conflicted himself. Suffice to say, McAvoy is brilliant, but perhaps not Oscar brilliant. “Split” boils down to a clever, self-conscious one-man show despite the quartet of additional characters involved. Unfortunately, we see only eight of the twenty-three weirdos that McAvoy portrays, but none is either demonic or memorable. Meanwhile, two of those four other characters lack sympathy because they brought this tragedy on themselves by ridiculing the psycho. Shyamalan’s surprises occur just where you would expect them, and you won’t feel the overwhelming urge to shout “WOW!” because you are so flabbergasted. Meantime, Shyamalan struggles desperately to spawn suspense, but what he achieves remains at best trifling. Sometimes, this half-baked suspense proves aggravating because you realize how futile it is for these doomed characters. On the other hand, unlike most psychos on killing spree saga, “Split” doesn’t wallow in gratuitous blood and gore.
Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch”) has been forged in a crucible of child abuse, too. A heart attack killed her father (Sebastian Arcelus of “Ted 2”) while she was attending elementary school. Sadly, her father’s brother, Uncle John (Brad William Henke of “Fury”), has assumed the duties as a guardian for Casey. Without divulging too much, Casey and her stepfather have had an adversial relationship. Now, in high school, Casey prefers to keep to herself whenever possible. Two of her snobbish classmates, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson of “The Edge of Seventeen”) and Claire’s African-American friend Marcia (Jessica of “Honeytrap”), have invited her to their birthday party more out of mercy rather than friendship. Indeed, they display cynical attitudes about Casey, but they fear the repercussions on social media about what they might have faced had they not invited Casey. When her ride doesn’t materialize, Casey agrees to accompany Claire and Marcia and listen to Claire’s father (Brian Gildea) who loves to tell terrible jokes. As the saying goes, Hell is a road asphalted with good intentions, and Claire and Marcia have provided the paving that puts Casey in harm’s way. Before they can pull out of the parking lot, a stranger, Kevin Wendel Crumb intervenes, dispenses with Claire’s dad, and then carjacks them. Slipping on a face mask, he sprays something into their eyes that plunges them into oblivion. Of course, had they not been paralyzed with fear, these girls could have bailed out before Kevin incapacitated them. When they awaken, the girls find themselves locked up in a room with the same tight-lipped stranger staring at them. Eventually, they discover that something is seriously amiss with their captor. Every time Crumb appears, he masquerades as an entirely different fellow, sometimes even as a woman. What the three girls don’t know is that Kevin is a patient of a world-renowned psychotherapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley of “Frantic”), who has terribly misjudged the threat that he poses to society. Repeatedly, Kevin tells her about ‘the beast’ and how this messianic personality will shield all twenty-three personalities from scorn and ridicule. When ‘the beast’ shows up, “Split” turns into a warped Marvel Comics movie because the beast possesses supernatural characteristics. At this point, you want to laugh out loud at this transition from a dreary abduction potboiler to a fantasy epic that happens to be a belated sequel to the Bruce Willis & Samuel L. Jackson thriller “Unbreakable.”
Nothing in this review has been designed to spoil “Split” if you decide to see it. You may walk into this superficial saga with greater awareness than you might have, but far be it for me to sabotage the quirky ending that hinges on purity. Before anybody can complain that I hate all Shyamalan’s movies, let me say that I admired “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “Lady in the Water,” but I abhorred “The Village,” “The Visit,” “After Earth,” “The Last Airbender,” and “The Happening.” “Split” belongs to the latter category of travesties. Comparably, as deplorable as it was, “The Visit” surpasses “Split.” Nothing about “Split” is more than timidly suspenseful, and the action degenerates into a series of episodic encounters between McAvoy’s various personalities and his victims. Casey is the only other truly interesting character aside from the loquacious Dr. Karen Fletcher. The other two girls might as well have been mannequins. They are essentially expendable, and they behave like whiny victims in a movie where whiny victims must perish. The surprise ending came as neither a relief nor a revelation. More often than not, I felt like Shyamalan cheated with some of the narrative twists that contained neither enough credibility nor sufficient spontaneity. Finally, Shyamalan has exploited Dissociative Identity Disorder as a cheap gimmick to conjure up an uninspired Grimm’s style fairy tale that stigmatizes the disorder rather than entertains us as a legitimate horror movie.