There are a few reasons why Split is the perfect title for the new M. Night Shyamalan movie. The most obvious one is the fact it’s about a man with multiple split personalities who kidnaps three young girls. The other is that the movie itself is split: 98 percent of the movie is a good Shyamalan film, which is its own pleasant surprise. But the final 2 percent is “Oh my God. OH MY GOD.”
Split just had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2016 in Austin and doesn’t officially open until January. That’s a long time to protect a secret ending that will have movie fans (this one included) cheering in delight. Happily, the rest of the movie completely stands on its own, and shows Shyamalan doing what he does best: Taking an original idea and twisting it in a new way to keep you guessing and riveted until the very end.
Split stars James McAvoy as Dennis, a man who kidnaps three teenage girls (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy, plus Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson) for reasons we aren’t quite sure of. What we are sure of, though, is that Dennis isn’t this person’s real identity. He’s also Patricia, Hedwig, Barry, and 19 other identities, not including his real one, Kevin. Kevin has multiple personality disorder and, very quickly, the girls realize that not all the personalities are cool with what Dennis has done.
This sets the stage for an absolute acting tour-de-force for McAvoy, who gets to play multiple sexualities, genders and ages in a single movie with only a few wardrobe changes. And he’s absolutely incredible in each role, completely believable and able to flip between the characters with a twist of his face or gleam in his eye.
As they’re captured, the girls (mainly Casey, played by Taylor-Joy) try to pit the personalities against each other. When confused, Kevin goes to see Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a woman who studies people with multiple personalities and think they could be a kind of higher being, an example of the true nature and potential of the brain. It’s a seemingly ancillary, but absolutely crucial throughline as the film moves on.
This may sound like a lot of complex moving parts, but it really isn’t. Shyamalan’s script is very focused, and on moving the story along. It even weaves in some flashbacks to give Casey a bit more context. The result is Split never gets quite that scary or tense, but it operates more as a puzzle that needs to be solved. How will all of these things come together? And, of course, they do that quite well. Despite its haunting music and masterful camera moves, the greatest pleasure in Split isn’t that classic Shyamalan creep factor. It’s watching how just three actors (McAvoy, Taylor-Joy, and Buckley) can make a story work in so many different ways.
And then there’s that ending. Calling it a “twist” isn’t exactly right; unlike The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable or The Village, it doesn’t exactly change your perception of the story of the film. It more... enhances the film. Honestly, it’s impossible to explain well without giving too much away, and it’s much, much too great to spoil. So whenever you read about Split in the future, be careful—because we expect to be it to be talked about a lot before it opens January 20, 2017.