Characters with split personalities have woven their way into psychological thrillers for decades, from the iconic work of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho” to Johnny Depp in “Secret Window” to Leonardo DiCaprio in “Shutter Island.”
But “Split” offers James McAvoy a chance to take this concept to an entirely new level, resulting in one of the juiciest roles the genre has seen in years. The “X-Men” star portrays Kevin, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder who manifests 23 distinct personalities … with a very scary 24th waiting in the wings.
Collectively, this adds up to a brazenly showy role for the Scottish actor. But McAvoy, sporting a shaved head and buff physique, renders each individual with admirable subtlety. His work elevates writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s weird little horror flick into something memorable.
Three high school girls leave a birthday celebration at a mall and wake up locked in an underground bunker, having been abducted by Kevin. Best friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) debate how to fight their captor, but moody outsider Casey (a skillful Anya Taylor-Joy from “The Witch”) realizes they’re no match for him.
Instead, she determines their lone opportunity is to befriend one of Kevin’s less-aggressive identities to help them escape. Casey settles on “Hedwig,” a 9-year-old boy who fancies her. But he warns the girls that someone new will be coming to visit, and “he’ll do things to you.”
Meanwhile, one of Kevin’s personalities keeps reaching out via email to his trusted psychiatrist (Betty Buckley of “Carrie” fame). Although he seems to be fine during their regular appointments, she suspects something isn’t quite right.
“Split” first appears to be a “How will you get out?” scenario not unlike last year’s “10 Cloverfield Lane” or the superior “Don’t Breathe.” But the victim viewpoint soon gives way to more unusual dynamics. Casey’s own history involving a childhood hunting trip colors her decisions. Plus, we learn about Kevin’s experiences that led him down this path. It makes for a more intriguing movie, though not necessarily a more exciting one.
After forgettable misfires (“Lady in the Water,” “The Visit”) and downright abominations (“The Last Airbender,” “The Happening”), Shyamalan returns to an atmospheric piece best suited for his uneven talents. As in his most effective hits “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” the less he reveals, the better.
He still falls prey to dialogue dripping with exposition. (Buckley rivals Simon Oakland’s “Psycho” doctor in time spent explaining the medical mumbo jumbo behind all this.) Yet Shyamalan withholds other info for a good while, presenting key flashbacks and dangling clues that allow viewers to do their own homework. All of this is well shot by Michael Gioulakis of “It Follows,” who brings a smooth calm to such potentially disjointed material.
Perhaps Shyamalan’s best decision (beyond casting McAvoy, who replaced Joaquin Phoenix right before shooting began) is keeping the picture rated PG-13. The lascivious aspects of the teen abduction prove easier to stomach with the violence and sexuality toned down. It quickly becomes apparent the filmmaker is not aiming to please the torture porn crowd. For all its genre trappings, “Split” comes from a cerebral perspective. Or at least one more concerned with psychology than gory physiology.
This plays to McAvoy’s strengths. He’s always been an internalized chameleon of sorts. He goes as deep as time allows in fleshing out this array of two dozen characters, who each take turns “stealing the light” to emerge. Young. Old. Male. Female. One is a fastidious germaphobe. Another is a primal force of nature.
McAvoy makes shrewd changes in his posture, facial expressions and favored phrases to convey these distinctions. He also alters his voice, delivering English and Bronx accents as well as speech impediments.
Amusingly enough, not one of the 24 speaks with a Scottish brogue.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:57.