Unlikely as it might seem at this point in his up-and-down career, M. Night Shyamalan proves he can still pull off a genuine surprise at the end of his unnervingly clever new thriller, “Split.” The precise nature of that twist will not be revealed here, though given its mind-tickling narrative implications — to say nothing of the wildfire-like speed of social media these days — you can probably expect the statute of limitations on spoilers to run out faster than it did on “Bruce Willis is dead” or “Rosebud is a sled.”
Nevertheless, the more significant and spoiler-proof astonishment here is that Shyamalan — after nearly a decade-long creative (and sometimes commercial) drought — has reclaimed much of the formal precision and conceptual daring that made his earlier pictures, “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” chief among them, so memorably creepy. There is life after “After Earth.” To be fair, there were already promising signs of career resurgence in the writer-director’s more recent output, including his 2015 found-footage thriller, “The Visit,” and the first season of the science-fiction series “Wayward Pines.”
But with “Split,” that resurgence has, not unlike the mysterious field markings in “Signs,” come full circle. It’s telling (though not untroubling) that Shyamalan has returned to one of his most trenchant recurring themes, which is the mysterious link between supernatural phenomena and the varying degrees of physical and psychological trauma that afflict his characters. Nearly everyone in Shyamaland suffers terribly, but more often than not that suffering also endows them with extraordinary powers of perception and resilience.
Resilience certainly seems to distinguish a withdrawn teenager named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) from her more outgoing peers, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), when the three of them are suddenly plunged into a nightmarish scenario. Kidnapped in broad daylight, the girls awaken to find themselves in a small, dingy room with no windows and one gleaming-white bathroom — just one of many elements, including the movie’s Saul Bass-influenced credits sequence, that gesture in the direction of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
Eventually they are visited by their captor, Kevin, though he turns out to be not one person but many. Played by a dazzlingly protean James McAvoy (with an occasional assist from Paco Delgado’s costumes), Kevin has no fewer than 23 distinct personalities of varying ages, genders and accents. A few of them are women, like Patricia, who speaks in disquieting dulcet tones — and most of them are middle-aged, with the exception of Hedwig, a boy with a pronounced lisp and a healthy sense of mischief.
All of Kevin’s personalities share the same medium build and close-cropped hair, which turns his face into a fittingly blank (or at least bald) canvas onto which McAvoy can project each new identity. At the same time, one of the film’s most intriguing formulations is the notion — advanced with crackpot eloquence by Kevin’s pioneering psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (a mesmerizing Betty Buckley) — that in particularly advanced cases of dissociative identity disorder, the physical constraints on one personality don’t necessarily affect the others.
Kevin and his friends are a tour de force for McAvoy, though Taylor-Joy, coming off a breakthrough year with “The Witch” and “Barry,” holds the screen with no less force (and far fewer roles). No less than Claire or Marcia, Casey longs to break free of her captor’s clutches, but her response to Kevin — and her weird lack of overt panic — seems partially modulated by her own unique experience of childhood pain. Some of that pain is suggested in the warm-colored outdoor flashbacks that “Split” intersperses throughout, counteracting the claustrophobia of the girls’ entrapment and providing a structural echo of Kevin’s fragmented psyche.
A director of Hitchcockian ruthlessness, if also a decidedly Spielbergian weakness for spectacle and sentimentality, Shyamalan has at times faltered by playing God with his peripheral characters, callously treating their anguish as little more than a means to an end. In its queasier moments, “Split” indirectly raises the specter of sexual violation, as Kevin’s nubile captives are forced to strip off some of their outer clothing (mainly at the insistence of one of the personalities, who has an extremely OCD aversion to dirt).
But Shyamalan isn’t a complete sadist — the sheer torture of “The Last Airbender” notwithstanding — and for the most part, he is content to frighten his characters, and the audience, through more conventionally effective means. The occasional screams on the soundtrack are often swallowed up by the ominous swell of West Dylan Thordson’s score, and the cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who previously demonstrated a flair for deep-focus tracking shots in “It Follows,” delights in chasing Casey and her friends through a labyrinth of snaking corridors and air shafts.
Lots more will be written about what “Split” does and doesn’t get right about dissociative identity disorder, and McAvoy’s performance, for all its arresting versatility, is stronger on showmanship than psychological rigor. Such quibbles, however well informed, will almost certainly miss the point. Shyamalan’s movie is hardly the first or most accomplished entry in the horror lexicon — not limited to “Psycho,” “Halloween” and their legions of imitators — to brilliantly exploit the vagaries of mental illness to its own bravura ends.
Even more will probably be written about The Twist, which functions less as a stunning reversal than a sly recontextualization — a neat little sting in the tail of a movie that functions, on its own terms, as a satisfyingly complete and compelling narrative experience. It’s worth noting too that “Split” is Shyamalan’s latest movie (after “The Visit”) produced by the franchise-happy horror maven Jason Blum — a collaboration that could scarcely be more fitting. “Split” doesn’t just revive Shyamalan’s career; it resurrects his brand.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In general release