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I’m still not sold on the perceived career renaissance of M. Night Shyamalan. Sure, The Visit wasn’t an improbable, terribly acted, obnoxious, overly pretentious pile of fecal matter. It’s good to know the bar isn’t quite as low as it used to be. Even so, that particular film was still a generic entry in the threadbare “found footage” horror genre, with some deeply annoying characters and a plot that didn’t really get going until the big climactic twist.

So I wasn’t terribly excited to see that Split was another Shyamalan writing/directing effort. But the talented young Anya Taylor-Joy opposite James McAvoy as two dozen psychopathic split personalities inside the same deranged head? Holy shit, sign me up.

Taylor-Joy plays our de facto protagonist, a loner teenage delinquent named Casey. She’s invited along to a birthday party (I think) out of plot-contrived pity, and to make a long story short, she gets abducted along with two other girls. The three of them are taken by James McAvoy and the 23 different characters inhabiting his body. Why were the girls taken? Where were they taken? Obviously, those are among the film’s core mysteries and I won’t be spoiling them here. Suffice to say that there’s something involved called “The Beast”, and you know it can’t be anything good with a name like that.

Right off the top, McAvoy’s performance is regrettably uneven. I was genuinely looking forward to seeing McAvoy play 23 entirely different characters in one film, but alas, this herculean task was too much even for such an incredible actor as McAvoy. In far too many cases, his characters only felt like so many different flavors of either “stern and overbearing” or “impish and excitable.”

But then, as the film continues, all of McAvoy’s characters get pushed harder and harder, and we start to learn more about the mechanics of how this brain works. As this happens, the characters gradually start to lose control, and that’s captivating to watch in McAvoy’s performance. In some shots — sometimes even multiple times within a shot! — we see McAvoy seamlessly transition from one character to another, and it’s nothing short of magnificent to see him pull that off.

Now let’s move on to the victim pool. Two of the girls — played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula — are so panicky and brain-dead, such obvious meat for the grinder, that they’re barely even worth mentioning. But Casey is far more interesting in that she bothers to stop and try to think her way out of her situation. She’s visibly terrified, but she’s smart enough to know that panicking won’t solve anything. So she tries to figure out exactly what she’s dealing with, primarily surviving through keen observation, sound strategy, and appealing to whichever ego she’s talking to in the moment. Not only does this make her a lot more fun to watch, but it makes her a great deal more sympathetic.

Unfortunately, Casey is also the victim of childhood trauma, in a forced and cliched parallel with her antagonist. Moreover, Casey — who grew up in a family of avid huntsmen — is also stuck with a lot of imagery regarding animals, hunting, survival of the fittest, and so on. This is where Shyamalan’s trademark pretension is most keenly felt, as so very much screentime is devoted to this motif, and yet it doesn’t gel into anything coherent or make any kind of intellectual point. It admittedly adds a neat layer to the film’s “horror” aspect, but that’s about it. Though Casey’s trauma goes to a far more interesting place — more on that later.

On a final note about the girls — particularly about Casey — there were a few times in which I felt like these teenage girls were shot in a way that was kinda… well, pervy. There’s nothing explicit, and it was all subtle enough to get by, but there were seriously times when I had to wonder just how much the filmmakers were trying to sexualize them. Granted, this might be forgiven as part of the “animal” metaphor — portraying the girls as prey and so on — but I’m only guessing on that because, again, that whole “call of the wild” thing goes nowhere coherent and the point is therefore moot.

The only other character worthy of note is Dr. Karen Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley. She’s the psychiatrist to McAvoy’s characters, and also a leading authority on Dissociative Identity Disorder. In fact, she speaks very highly of those with DID, speculating that they might potentially be more advanced than other people, and may even hold the key to several untapped mysteries of the human mind. It’s her that says (in the trailer, no less), that those with multiple personalities can even change their own bodily physiology. Of course that’s all bullshit, and to be fair, it’s clearly shown in the film that Fletcher’s hypotheses are treated with a healthy amount of skepticism by other intellectuals within the film.

As a literal statement about mental disorders, none of it makes any lick of sense. But as a metaphorical statement about mental disorders and emotional trauma, it actually makes a lot of sense. Why? Think back to just a few months ago, when we got a movie about an Aspergian math prodigy/super-assassin played by the goddamn Batman. Or hell, think about the umpteen characters (one of them another Ben Affleck character, in fact) who lost one sense only to have the other four senses boosted.

All our lives, we’ve been told that those who have mental disabilities and social disorders can do things and understand things that nobody else can. Moreover, we’ve been told that survivors of rape, childhood assault, and other traumas are stronger for having survived it. And in many cases, our flaws can in fact make us stronger. Yet there are also times in which our flaws only make us flawed. Which is which? Who knows?

This is the story of a man (a select few personalities within that man, anyway) who was led to believe that his unique flaws and mental disorders made him the motherfucking Ubermensch. He was delusional enough to not only believe that he was better than every other person on the planet, but to take that belief to homicidal extremes, and nobody realized that until it was too late. Yet we also have Casey, a character who comes to embrace her battle-tested nature, and that’s what ultimately saves her. It takes a long time for the movie to focus on this instead of all the other bullshit, but the entire picture goes up to a whole ‘nother gear when it happens.

In the movie’s perfectly timed scares, drawn-out tension, clever pacing, and breathtaking visuals, Shyamalan does a fantastic job. In the movie’s jilted dialogue, subpar action, and moments of pretension, Shyamalan shows how far he still has to go. Speaking of which, any longtime Shyamalan fans out there will definitely want to stick around for the mid-credits surprise waiting for them.

Split is regrettably uneven. When it’s good, we’ve got some outstanding performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy, in addition to some wonderful moments of suspense, beautiful visuals, and some creative statements about flaws both real and perceived. When it’s bad, we’ve got poor dialogue, transparent characters, ludicrous fugazi psychobabble, and pretentious concepts that go nowhere. But next to the good moments, the bad ones only look like mediocrities unfit to be considered dealbreakers.

This is hardly must-see material, but it’s a fine break from the Oscar season.

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