Split, M. Night Shyamalan's cheeky thriller about a kidnapper (James McAvoy) with 24 characters inside of him, one of whom hungers to kill, takes its title from a diagnosis that psychiatrists ditched 20 years ago. Split personalities have been rebranded "dissociative identity disorder" (DID), the new name emphasizing that patients aren't just hosting an inner cocktail party. By and large, they're child abuse victims who learned to hand over their brain and hide behind someone else, be it a stronger person, a more innocent person, or, in extreme cases, a puppy or a 1,000-year-old Irish poet. No wonder Split's Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) has a hard time convincing her fellow doctors that DID exists, even though her patient Kevin (McAvoy) is a textbook case: a boy whose mother beat him for dirtying the house, and who then created his own bodyguard, a tough guy named Dennis who — whew — has OCD and likes to clean. Coos Dr. Fletcher, "You were necessary."
Unfortunately for high-schoolers Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), Dennis also likes to dance with young girls. There's a reason Kevin's nicer personalities, like fashion queen Barry, diabetic Jade, and tweedy scholar Orwell, keep Dennis and stiff-spined grande dame Patricia from seizing control of McAvoy's 5-foot-7-inch frame. To distinguish between personalities, he swaps wardrobes and accents and shifts his features around, knotting his forehead when he plays Dennis, then yanking up his eyelids when 9-year-old Hedwig takes over. He's literally at war with himself — face and mind. In the opening scene, Dennis grabs the reins long enough to gas the teenage trio and lock them in his lair until Kevin's newest self, the Beast, is powerful enough to eat them alive. Which makes Shyamalan's popcorn picture head-scramblingly strange — a chiller where both the bad guy and his victims are, well, victims.
McAvoy has always been a handsome hobbit, all blue-eyed and innocent, which makes him tricky to cast in grown-up roles. (I couldn't buy him as a corrupt detective in Irvine Welsh's Filth no matter how much he stamped his feet.) But suddenly here with his head shaved, he looks like a chewed eraser. And Shyamalan's made an interesting monster. He's welded a huckster's sales pitch — see McAvoy go mad! — to a sensitive soul. Split is structured like a retro social-issue-exploitation picture (think Sybil, or Glen or Glenda), complete with an expert who pops in to tell us that all these shocks are psychologically real. Most of these films are fun trash, and they know it. Even reputable ones like Psycho, where after a cop exclaims that Norma Bates is a transvestite, his doctor corrects, "Not exactly," before going into the blah-di-blah about suffocation and guilt that makes most people rewind to the shower scene. (Split's opening credits borrow Psycho's bold, black-and-white, all-caps font that screams, "This is serious! Sort of!")
But we're not living in the ’60s anymore. As a culture, we've become alert to abuse. Split has to satisfy both audiences that believe in trigger warnings and the camp crowd that just wants to see McAvoy pull the trigger. And so, Shyamalan trickily asks us to redefine victimhood. Is it tears and fear, what popular blonde Claire calls "victim shit"? Is it the final-girl toughness Hollywood always sells — and which Marcia buys into when she tries to smash Patricia in the head with a chair? Or is it something wise and sad and ugly, like Casey's tip when Dennis drags Marcia away: "Pee on yourself," she hisses. We're startled. Till then, Casey hasn't talked much except to tell the two suburban darlings that their survival fantasies won't work. But she has the dark eyes and cute, curled lip of a bunny rabbit who's seen some bad things in the woods. She knows survival, and it doesn't look like the movies.
Except, here it sometimes does. Shyamalan can't resist getting all the girls to take off their shirts. Poor Sula has to run through the entire second half of the film in her underwear, and there's a close-up of a knife in her belly button that made me shiver and admire her regimen of sit-ups. The film is somehow both weirdly PG and emotionally R. (Technically, it splits the difference at a PG-13.) There's almost no blood and, mostly, almost no violence. Yet it makes us think about rape all the time, while keeping it offscreen or, in the case of Dennis and manchild Hedwig, simply pressuring the teenagers for a dance or a kiss. (Patricia has forbidden her male counterparts from going further.) It's the Beast in the shadows, and it's possible to both resent Shyamalan for yanking its chain and feel the writer/director's empathy for the girls he's put in its path.
Casey gives in to the kiss. Taylor-Joy's stiff shoulders make it clear she's miserable, though she assures Hedwig she loves his company — and hey, what's that walkie-talkie over there? What's fascinating about Split (and what I think could piss audiences off) is that it sees the power in playing along. There's no applause for kissing a creep; we prefer stories about women who smash skulls. But growing up a girl means learning which insults to fight, because you can't fight them all. So you pick your battles — and your surrenders — while quietly figuring out how to win the war. Buckley's Dr. Fletcher masterfully probes Kevin's sanity while pretending she's in the wrong. She's a kung fu champion who points the sword at her own chest. It's not pretty and it's not heroic, but it's honest and good to see onscreen, even if it hurts.
Still, Shyamalan isn't trafficking in misery. He ends that kissing scene with a joke, and the laugh is genuine. After The Sixth Sense was a hit, Shyamalan spent years assembling big cuckoo-clock films that pivoted around a surprise. (ZOMG THE TREES WILL KILL US ALL, NO WONDER THE GOP WANTS TO SELL OFF THE NATIONAL PARKS!) Lately, he's decided he doesn't need a twist, and his flicks have gotten straighter and cheaper and better. Now he's having fun. His last film, 2015's The Visit, was a tickler, a goofy nightmare for kids. Split is several rungs above it. The camera is smarter, and the look is crisp and controlled. There's a gratuitous spiral staircase shot he's stolen from classic horror flicks and a wicked hallway scene where lightbulbs get smashed one by one. Several times he uses POV to stick us inside Kevin's head where, if we stayed any longer, we'd have to jockey for space.
There's a reason why Dr. Fletcher studies dissociative identity disorder cases like Kevin: He shows us what the human brain can do. How did he will one personality to have diabetes when the other 23 don't? And, perhaps more importantly, is there something in his chemistry that could lead to a cure? "The broken are the more evolved," McAvoy says, and Split agrees. It wears the word "victim" like a badge of honor. After all, to create a coping mechanism, no matter how weak-looking or weird, is to take your trauma and build something new.