With “Split,” M. Night Shyamalan plants his flag at the intersection of tense solemnity and outlandish camp. It’s easier to notice the former than the latter, with his moody sets, slow pacing and formalistic camera work that lingers on the horrified faces of the story’s victims.
James McAvoy plays the villain, a seriously creepy lunatic named Kevin. He’s also named Barry, Patricia, Dennis, Jade and 20 or so other names, each representing a different aspect of his fractured personality.
McAvoy, an actor mostly known to American audiences as a young Charles Xavier in the “X-Men” series, takes advantage of a rare opportunity to demonstrate he can nail a broad range of characters all in one movie. “Split” leaves most of his two dozen personalities unseen, but he gets a lot to do with those that remain; a pervert with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a cruelly calculating English lady, a gay fashionista. Even as he clearly enjoys the lurid absurdity of it, McAvoy knows when to shift from absurd humor to repressed lust and rage.
The film begins with the kidnapping of three teenage girls after a birthday party. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are BFF’s, popular girls who only invited the decidedly unpopular Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) along to be nice. Now they’re locked up in a grungy facility that resembles an underground bunker. Their captor frequently comes to their cell to torment them, usually switching between his multiple villainous personalities. Most of his personalities are those of good people, but they’ve been co-opted by the evil ones. On occasion, the good ones gain control, but, conveniently for the script, never long enough to make much difference.
As the worsening hostage drama unfolds, we occasionally join Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), his psychiatrist. Speaking in bursts of fantasy science, she theorizes people with multiple personalities can alter their body chemistry to match whichever persona has hold at the moment.
Shyamalan, whose 1999 film “The Sixth Sense” made him pop culture’s undisputed master of plot twists, has some surprises in store. They’re nothing special, but the anticipation of them gives the proceedings a suspense it would have otherwise lacked. He keeps most of the violence just out of sight, letting the audience in on what others, such as Casey and Dr. Fletcher, witness themselves.
It’s all thrilling enough, with menace hanging thick in the air as the gruesome climax approaches. But it’s more than a little silly, and the languid pacing saps away much of the fun.