M. Night Shyamalan might be cinema’s greatest one trick pony. After making an auspicious debut in 1999 with The Sixth Sense and an Oscar nomination for Best Director, it’s been all downhill ever since with a series of films predicated on twist endings (Signs, The Village, The Lady in the Water, The Happening) that became progressively more preposterous.
Nothing has changed – his latest film, Split, is quintessential Shyamalan and the twist here is that he hasn’t learned from past mistakes.
James McAvoy plays a guy named Kevin, and Dennis, and Barry, as well as a prim woman named Patricia and a lisping child called Hedwig. These are just five of the 23 personalities inhabiting this sufferer of Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder), who has abducted a trio of students (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) and imprisoned them in a basement for some sinister purpose.
Split resembles a bad Dean Koontz novel or a rejected X-Files script, with the narrative alternating between the girls’ encounters with Kevin’s different personas – appealing to the benevolent ones, inciting the wrath of the more malicious – and the revelation uncovered by his elderly psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) concerning the nature of his disorder, and the possibility that a 24th personality is struggling to emerge.
Then there are the flashbacks to Taylor-Joy’s childhood, involving a hunting trip with her father and uncle, that may have some significance to her present predicament. And who or what is the mysterious ‘Beast’ that’s so ominously name-dropped throughout, and will it actually show up?
Assembling Shyamalan’s enigmatic jigsaw of a plot and attempting to pre-empt the inevitable climactic reveal is ultimately an exercise in futility – Split is all set-up with little payoff, and the coda smacks of conceit. McAvoy, however, is enormous fun and his blatantly showy performance is almost worth the price of admission.
In cinemas: January 26, 2017
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan