The career path of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is more intriguing than many of his movies.

The career path of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is more intriguing than many of his movies.

After taking Hollywood by surprise with the huge success — both with critics and audiences — of “The Sixth Sense,” he's had one of the longest leashes of any mainstream director.

He followed “Sixth Sense” with “Unbreakable” and “Signs,” not quite matching the potential of his first movie but still showing great promise.

Hell, I even like “The Village,” but pretentiousness got the best of him with the awful “Lady in the Water.” Then came a couple of high-profile flops (“The Last Airbender,” “After Earth”) that would have ended most careers.

His new movie, “Split,” brings a twist not even most Shyamalan fans could have seen coming: It's his best film since “The Sixth Sense.”

“Split” has a premise that could be awful in the wrong hands, and I would have thought those would include Shyamalan's. Three teenage girls are kidnapped by a man with multiple personalities. He holds them hostage, and they must navigate his distinct personalities to try and escape.

The first thing that elevates “Split” is the performance of James McAvoy (aka young Charles Xavier in the latest “X-Men” movies) in the lead. His character's personalities — which include a woman, a 9-year-old boy and more — aren't in any way subtle, but his embodiment of them is transformative.

Then there's Casey, the heroine that emerges from the trio of hostages, who's played by the breakout star of 2016's “The Witch,” Anya Taylor-Joy. Much of the terror in the movie — and it's often quite terrifying — is reflected in her eyes, but the character also has a toughness that stems from experiences she's already survived.

Shyamalan also advances his narrative through a psychologist (Betty Buckley) who has a controversial and empathetic treatment plan for patients with the rare dissociative identity disorder. This sets up some layers that Shyamalan later explores in territory he's more familiar with.

Shyamalan also manages a near-perfect pace for “Split.” Members of the preview screening I attended caught a case of some inappropriate chuckles (particularly when McAvoy is channeling a young boy) early in the film. By the end, no one was laughing.

“Split” may remain one of the most unexpected surprises of 2017. Let's hope this twist in Shyamalan's catalog points to what's ahead.