UK Release Date: 20th January 2017
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Writer: M Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley
Synopsis: A man with multiple personalities kidnaps three young women and claims they are important in the arrival of a strange other identity known only as The Beast.
When The Visit arrived on cinema screens a couple of years ago, it marked a return to his past glories for M Night Shyamalan. After bursting onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, he quickly became well-known for his trademark plot twists and then subsequently was transformed into a punchline by a succession of turkeys. Shyamalan is now back as writer-director at the helm of new thriller Split, in which James McAvoy is given an actor’s dream job – playing a man with 23 different personalities.
Troubled and quiet teen Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is kidnapped along with outgoing, confident Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). Their captor is Kevin (McAvoy), who wanders in and out of their prison as seemingly completely different people, from clean freak Dennis to matronly Patricia and nine-year-old hip hop lover Hedwig. The girls soon realise that Kevin has dangerous plans for them, related to a new persona called The Beast, and his psychiatrist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) soon begins to get suspicious that Kevin has done something awful.
The notion of multiple personalities is a well-worn one in cinema, particularly in the horror genre with films like Hitchcock’s classic Psycho and the ultra-violent French slasher Switchblade Romance. Few performers have been able to have as much fun with the idea, though, as James McAvoy does in Split. McAvoy gets the opportunity to portray at least half a dozen of Kevin’s personalities and does so largely with facial contortions and a changing voice, particularly in a bravura late scene that would absolutely be an Oscar montage clip if B-movie thrillers ever figured in the awards season equation.
McAvoy’s performance sits at the heart of everything that is fun about Split, whether it’s the awkward comedy of Hedwig’s bedroom dancing or the barely stifled evil of the sinister Patricia, who recalls Nurse Ratched in her prim meanness. Shyamalan’s frenetic direction allows the film to unfold at a pretty swift pace, particularly in the fantastical denouement that takes itself just seriously enough to keep the scares coming as the humour necessarily dries up. It’s clear that McAvoy is having a great time in the role and he walks the line between sinister and silly very nimbly, ensuring that the performance never becomes goofy, as it could have done in the hands of a lesser actor.
There’s a great supporting performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, who gives us a relatable and compelling protagonist to get behind as she attempts to flee. Taylor-Joy wowed audiences a year ago in The Witch and is just as impressive here, using her expressive eyes to convey a depth beyond the sheer panic portrayed by her two fellow captors. Flashbacks that hint at and later spell out her character’s back story are less successful than they should be and tend to do more to disrupt the film’s momentum than unlock its meaning.
It’s when Shyamalan focuses on writing more than directing that Split begins to fall down, with over-written expository scenes disrupting the story throughout and leaden dialogue occasionally getting in the way. He wisely eschews his trademark ‘big twist’ finale for a revelatory moment that satisfies rather than stuns, only to blow it all with a coda that delivers an entirely unnecessary and baffling final turn of the screw. Shyamalan’s final flourish distracts by way of an A-list cameo, rather undoing the low-key joys of the rest of the film.
Pop or Poop?
M Night Shyamalan continues his return to form with Split, which is a fun thriller that only occasionally creaks under the weight of its ridiculous central conceit. James McAvoy is riotous fun in the lead role and Anya Taylor-Joy holds everything together with a more restrained, but equally impressive, turn.
It’s only Shyamalan’s own hyperactivity that leads the film to splinter, especially with a thumping final addition that adds precisely nothing.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.