Three teenaged girls are kidnapped and held prisoner by a mentally ill man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID); he has 23 distinct personalities. The potential problems inherent in such a scenario are obvious, particularly given how Hollywood typically approaches such issues… and Shyamalan is nowhere near the maverick he thinks he is. Split is just as squicky as you might expect. Girls are terrorized as a way to illustrate a man’s character and personality, even going so far as to cast him as a sort of victim. Mental illness is depicted as a cause of violent behavior, which is not generally the case; mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
But perhaps the most offensive problem of all, from the perspective of telling a gripping story, is this: The man appears to have had no reason at all to kidnap and imprison the girls, not even a demented clichéd cheesy-movie-villain one. This would be quite mysterious to me, except that it has been a feature, and apparently not a bug, of Shyamalan for far too long now that plausible human behavior isn’t high on his list of storytelling concerns. The fundamental act upon which the entirety of Split is structured, around which all the other action revolves and from which all the thematic underpinnings hang, is not justified by the character who commits it, not explicitly and not implicitly, and we cannot even begin to guess at what purpose it is meant to serve for him. We can see very clearly what purpose it serves for the movie itself, but “there would be no movie absent that act” is not good enough.
Shyamalan (The Visit, The Last Airbender) has long since become a parody of himself, and this is almost literal in the case of Split. Where once he could create a slow burn of genre busting — as in Unbreakable, where you knew early on that he was deliberately playing with the tropes of comic-book superhero stories — here he holds back far too much about what his intent is, and for far too long. It’s not that when the would-be grand scope of his plan is eventually revealed the story suddenly makes sense; it does not. But it does feel as if Shyamalan was so focused on his endgame that he neglected the building blocks that are meant to support it. Or perhaps he hoped we’d be so wowwed in the end that we’d overlook how insupportably flimsy it is.
“Dennis” is the grim, menacing personality inside Kevin (James McAvoy: X-Men: Apocalypse, Victor Frankenstein) who kidnaps the girls — Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy: Morgan, The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson: The Edge of Seventeen), and Marcia (Jessica Sula: Honeytrap) — and locks them in a small basement room in a structure that feels commercial or light-industrial. (We don’t learn what sort of place this is until close to the end of the movie; it becomes another cheat of withheld information, though that, too, doesn’t amount to as much of anything as Shyamalan seems to think it does.) Dennis doesn’t physically hurt them; he doesn’t rape them or anything, though clearly there is plenty harm in taking away their freedom and leaving them to worry what worse is in store for them. Another personality, schoolmarmish Patricia, “reassures” the girls that “he” is “not allowed” to touch them, though the personality Hedwig — a mischievous nine-year-old — promises the girls that “he” is definitely going to do terrible things to them just as “he” has done to others. We’re not sure who “he” refers to: Is it “Dennis,” or is it a 24th personality they call “the Beast” who may or may not be about to emerge? (Though, of course, a personality who has not yet emerged cannot yet have done anything, or yet be admonished not to do something.) There is one brief mention of the girls being “sacred food” for something or other, but that never comes to anything; if they are somehow meant to be sacrificed in order to birth the Beast, we never see how this was going to work. Everything that happens thenceforth is in spite of the girls’ presence, or as a result of subsequent events that Dennis could not have planned for, and there’s never any indication of how things might have gone otherwise; so what the heck was Dennis’s intention in taking the girls? Split brings unfortunate new breadth to the notion of contrivance.
Now, it’s plain why Shyamalan thinks it’s important for Kevin/Dennis to have kidnapped the girls: The filmmaker needs their presence so he can set up a running motif about the particular sturdiness of people who’ve been abused. We see in flashbacks fleshing out Casey’s background that she has suffered terribly throughout her childhood, and this makes her better able to cope with the ordeal the girls are now going through than Claire and Marcia are managing. And we know through Kevin’s regular visits with his shrink, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley: The Happening) — who talks to personality Barry, a sensitive creative type — that Kevin was also badly abused as a child. Fletcher is present in the story primarily to info-dump us about DID and to prompt us to feel sorry for Kevin, for the lengths to which he has had to go in order to endure his abuse, creating all these other personalities to shield him from reality. And the idea that being a survivor of something terrible conveys a wisdom — as it clearly does in Casey — and offers a strength that others cannot appreciate is a wonderful one, and not something I’ve seen explored onscreen in quite this way before. But Shyamalan’s intent on keeping secrets rather than painting well-rounded portraits — particular in the case of Kevin — undercuts that. Rather than truly building understanding and sympathy, Split is much more interested in the luridness of an adult man tormenting teenaged girls, and in their terror. (OCD-sufferer Dennis keeps having them strip off articles of their clothing as they get dirty during their escape attempts. Ugh.)
McAvoy is obviously having fun with Kevin’s different personalities, and Taylor-Joy is a talent to watch, but even they feel like pawns in a game that Shyamalan is playing by himself, one he only begrudgingly lets us peek in on. Too much of Split treads water, biding its time until it can reveal its proud cleverness, by which point it feels only like a cheap trick, self-satisfied yet unsatisfying.