Jake Richardson | 21/01/2017
With Split, M. Night Shyamalan returns to the sub-genre he helped create, giving us the best example of his talents in years.
The film centers around 3 teenage girls; Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who are abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy). Initially terrified by the act of the abduction and the uncertainty about their fate, they discover there is much more to fear when Kevin is revealed to have dissociative identity disorder; a condition which means that he possesses 23 distinct personalities inside the one body. As the girls try to engineer their own escape, they have to race against the clock before their real tormentor arrives; a fabled 24th personality of Kevin’s.
Shyamalan has had repeated missteps in recent years, and these experiences have undoubtedly left audiences with a sour taste in their mouths when it comes to his work. But Split takes him out of the vast majority of his recent sci-fi trappings, and instead grounds him in what made his early work so good; character study. Sometimes to the films’ detriment (two of the girls are pretty much immediately sidelined and forgotten about), M. Night focuses intensely on two of his characters; Casey and Kevin.
He scrutinises Kevin’s condition by giving us repeated glimpses at some of his more dominant personalities. The 9 year-old Hedwig is a particular favourite, often overshadowing the malevolent and strong Dennis, the flamboyant and fashionable Barry or the matronly Patricia. But it is the fact that we get to spend so much time with each of these characters that really emboldens the understanding of McAvoy’s character(s). Shyamalan lets the characters breathe, and the film is all the better for it.
Casey’s backstory is depicted through a series of flashbacks, leading to a horrific revelation about her past. But she is also a stronger character than is often seen in these chamber pieces. Casey, rather than struggling and shouting, stays calm and realises that Kevin actually has severe mental problems. She then proceeds to try and play some of his personalities off against one another, giving us a heroine who is smart and strong.
As Casey, Anya Taylor-Joy continues her remarkable form, giving a real vulnerability and underlying strength to the character. However, the film is undoubtedly McAvoy’s. He turns in an absolute masterclass in acting, regularly switching between characters and accents, giving each new persona a fully realised characterisation through tics, vocal traits and gait. It all comes to a head in a brilliant scene where he shuffles through his deck of characters in the space of a couple of minutes; a piece of acting that is truly awards-worthy.
Coupled with a fitting score and claustrophobic cinematography, along with a Shyamalan twist that will leave you cheering through the end credits, this thriller leaves us begging for something we would never have wanted last year; more M. Night Shyamalan.
Split is a strong return to form from the embattled director that is anchored by an astounding performance by James McAvoy.