Three’s company, 23’s an intimidating crowd in writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s intriguing thriller, Split, about a trio of teenagers who are abducted in broad daylight and held hostage by a 30-something oddball exhibiting multiple-personality disorder.
The abductor’s distinct personas supplant one another without warning, establishing a tense psychological battle for internal supremacy, which runs parallel to the hostages’ life-or-death fight for survival.
As dramatic set-ups go, Split is ripe with suspense, and Shyamalan’s script veers in unexpected directions, including one tantalising sequence that will draw gasps from fans of his earlier work.
A flashback framing device to a childhood hunting trip is far more predictable and the twisted morality of closing scenes, which attempt to justify who deserves to die, leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.
Far sweeter is Glasgow-born lead actor James McAvoy’s tour-de-force portrayal of an emotionally damaged man at war with himself.
In one powerhouse scene,
he ricochets between several personalities, capturing with aplomb the fierce battle raging inside his antagonist’s head.
For her birthday celebration at a local restaurant, popular high-school student Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) invites her classmates, including best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and creepy outcast, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy).
On the way home, a socially awkward misfit called Kevin Crumb (McAvoy) overpowers Claire’s father (Neal Huff) and kidnaps the three girls, spiriting them away to a bunker.
The teenagers woozily regain consciousness from chloroform fumes in a cell without windows or obvious means of escape, completely at the mercy of their captor.
“You know the only chance we have is if all three of us go crazy on this guy,” whimpers Claire, panic rising.
Casey urges caution and the hostages discover that Kevin exhibits 23 distinct personalities including a germ-phobic brute called Barry, a clucky British mother hen called Patricia and a nine-year-old boy called Hedwig.
“Barry knows he’s not allowed to touch you. He knows that,” Patricia soothingly informs the trio after one heated encounter.
Away from the bunker, Kevin makes regular visits to psychiatrist Dr Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is well aware of her patient’s condition.
Meanwhile in the cell, Casey recalls hunting expeditions in the woods with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke), which taught her how to incapacitate large animals.
Split is a return to confident form for Shymalan, who has never quite lived up to the dizzying promise of his Oscar-nominated third feature The Sixth Sense.
Admittedly his picture falls short of the suffocating tension of yesteryear’s abduction thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, but it’s an entertaining thrill ride, which gradually builds to the emergence of Kevin’s 24th personality.
Aside from McAvoy’s virtuoso turn, Taylor-Joy is haunting as a victim who might be stronger than she looks.
As in many of Shymalan’s other features, appearances are intentionally deceptive.