Split is M Night Shyamalan’s best movie in years, mostly because of James McAvoy.
It would be an understatement to say that the career of director M Night Shyamalan went from promising to absolutely abysmal in record time. No director in recent memory has so massively lost their groove by very quickly becoming a parody of himself. Take your pick of The Last Airbender, After Earth, or The Happening, and you could argue that any of them qualifies as the worst film of the year they were released. Then something quite unexpected happened. With the found footage horror The Visit Shyamalan pulled a last minute twist in his own career by making a film that wasn’t crushed by its own ideas. Which means that Split isn’t the surprise return to form as it could have been; rather it’s a consolidation of a career comeback that’s the directorial equivalent of the McConaissance.
The lion’s share of the credit has to go to James McAvoy as Kevin, a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) meaning that he has 23 different personalities. A role like this is a goldmine for any actor and McAvoy performs each different personality like the pro he is. Of the 23 personalities we get to see only a handful, those that have grouped together to take control of Kevin’s body: Dennis who is responsible for kidnapping three teenage girls, Patricia who feeds and takes care of the girls but is just as ruthless as Dennis, Barry a fashion obsessive who protects Kevin with his confidence, and Hedwig a nine year old that gets the most laughs, even if they are uncomfortable sniggers. The reason that these personalities have gone rogue is to prepare for the coming of a 24th personality named the Beast.
McAvoy is astonishing in each of his mini-roles using different voices, body language, facial tics and micro-expressions to differentiate between each role. It’s the kind of scenery-devouring that begs for awards recognition, but just like his bravura performance in Filth, Kevin maybe a bit too pulp for the old dears of the Academy. It’s not just his film, though: out of the three teenage girls, loner Casey, played by The Witch’s Anya Taylor Joy makes the biggest impression as someone whose own traumatic past makes her a worthy match to Kevin’s personalities as she tries to manipulate her way towards escape.
For all of its B-movie brilliance and Shyamalan’s distinctive style of treating high concepts in lo-fi ways like he did in his glory days, Split has a somewhat rotten core. While I’ll not spoil the ending, it does raise questions of the portrayal of mental illness, and trauma. Shyamalan tries to have his cake and eat it here but it’s trickier in this day and age to have a plot built on these subjects and using them as building blocks for B-movie thrills without trivialising them.
Still, the film does continue his career upswing, and some fun easter eggs open the door for more of this world to be explored. Overall Split is a highly entertaining psychological horror with a lot to say about mental health, even if not all of it sticks.