by Glenn Lovell
After a string of rerouted Twilight Zone episodes — starting with the silly and predictable “The Village” and including such mechanical genre feints as “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender” — it appeared M. Night Shyamalan was down for the count. What happened to the master yarn-spinner behind “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” fans demanded. Turns out he has been biding his time in rural Pennsylvania, waiting to mount, if not a full comeback, at least a tentative second beginning.
Last year’s “The Visit” proved a modest but effective return to bare-bones Brothers Grimm. Even so, reviewers weren’t quite finished clucking over M. Night the arrogant has-been, and the film went largely overlooked. (Our 3-star review.)
Shyamalan’s characteristically polite new shocker, “Split,” is another half-step towards image reclamation. It’s a small, nicely acted horror entry starring James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell, a case-book schizo with 22 more identities than Norman Bates. And like Norman, his creepy adult proclivities can be traced to Mommy issues. Anya Taylor-Joy, the possibly possessed daughter in “The Witch,” plays the most resourceful of Wendell’s three captives, and veteran Betty Buckley appears as the empathetic shrink who’s a little too pleased with her diagnosis of extreme DID (dissociative identity disorder). In horror, hubris is more lethal than a silver bullet.
All three actors are very good, but McAvoy deserves extra props for a turn that’s quite a bit more ambitious than the split-personality patients of “The Three Faces of Eve” (Joanne Woodward) and “Sybil” (Sally Field). McAvoy, who’s Scottish, explores about a half-dozen of the 24 “alt” identities, collectively known as “The Horde.” Dennis is “the bad one,” a controlling germophobe; Barry, who usually shows for the therapy sessions, is the fastidious designer; Patricia, more amenable, embodies Kevin’s feminine side; Hedwig is the frustrating 9-year-old given to amusing non sequiturs.
And then there’s The Beast, a less-than-Marvelous Hulk wannabe.
The impressive thing about this performance is that McAvoy differentiates the personalities without resorting to caricature, stereotypical swish or glower. This separates him from Ted Levine’s Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill in “Silence of the Lambs.”
Speaking of Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winner (yes, an obvious influence), “Split,” in comparison, proves a bit too literary and self-conscious; it certainly could have used a few more hardcore shocks. Overall, Shyamalan’s latest is more ingenious than scary. Which explains the neither/nor PG-13 rating. Genre fans these days demand at least an R for repulsive. “Split” — weighted down by mood-snapping flashbacks, obligatory director cameo and twist ending (sops to fans) — splits the difference: it’s “Dr. Jekyll” minus an especially alarming Hyde.
SPLIT ✮✮1/2 With James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Sebastian Arcelus. Written, directed by M. Night Shyamalan. 117 min. Rated PG-13 (for disturbing content, violence, profanity)