M. Night Shyamalan’s star-crossed career takes a step toward respectability after a long period in the wilderness with his newest movie “Split.”
That’s not to suggest the picture is worth seeing, entirely. It’s an intensely, deliberately unpleasant experience, a dirge in which a man with dissociative identity disorder named Kevin (James McAvoy) kidnaps three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) and holds them hostage in a windowless basement facility.
It also raises some weird questions about the ways it frames Kevin’s disorder, which manifests in 23 personalities (with dire warnings of the impact of a 24th) that collectively constitute one enormous acting challenge for McAvoy, who meets it with aplomb.
It’s a mistake to assume a movie like this is making a larger sweeping statement about mental illness, especially a film that so obviously takes place in a heightened realm, but there’s something discomforting about the villainizing and transforming into a horror movie spectacle of an individual suffering with such a misunderstood condition.
Still, for the first time in a long time, Shyamalan the screenwriter has crafted material befitting the talents of Shyamalan the director, a story meriting the full deployment of the significant visual aplomb that has characterized virtually everything he’s made since “The Sixth Sense.”
There’s a darkly comic sense of dread here, conveyed in the conviction with which McAvoy hurdles himself from a kidnapper named Dennis, to a proper British lady and a nervous young boy called Hedwig, often within seconds of each other. The movie unfolds largely within a sprawling subterranean space, dimly lit and beset by a glum industrialized aesthetic that Shyamalan nonetheless captures with long takes and smooth angles that provide just the right degree of polish.
The production values are uniformly high, for whatever that’s worth, though the movie as a whole is not serious enough to work as a drama and not entertaining enough to qualify as escapism.