Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Director: M.Night Shyamalan
Running Time: 117 mins
Synopsis: 3 young girls, including Taylor-Joy’s Casey, are kidnapped for seemingly no reason by an unstable man named Kevin (McAvoy). As they attempt to figure out a way to escape their incarceration it becomes apparent that Kevin is not just one man, but 23 individual personalities fighting to take control, and all of them awaiting the arrival of an all powerful nameless Beast.
Whether it was through hubris, a love of twists over consistent storytelling or simply bad luck it has been clear over the last decade or so that the once lauded M.Night Shyamalan had lost the promise shown during his first three pictures. It was certainly not due to lack of originality, barring the unfortunately named Last Airbender, all of his films have been projects straight from his own mind. However sometimes the idea worked a lot better on paper than on screen, as anyone who witnessed Mark Wahlberg attempt to run away from the wind will attest. A break away from the big screen, and a palate cleanser in the form of producing and creating TV show Wayward Pines has given the imaginative wunderkind a lease of life. The Visit was a low-key effective start but Split is very much a sign that his confidence, ballsiness and skill have returned.
The film wastes no time in getting the pieces in motion, no sooner have we been introduced to the withdrawn odd Casey and two of her school acquaintances (they aren’t what you would call solid friends) played by Hayley Lu-Richardson and Jessica Sula, than James McAvoy’s crazed Kevin is calmly entering their car to kidnap them. It is a tension filled, calmly delivered opening. Coldly malevolent whilst sowing the seeds that Casey’s introverted nature may have bigger repercussions. Waking up in a small cell, the girls go through the usual motions of panic and fear before the horrific revelation that Kevin is under the impression he is not one but 23 different personalities. Revealed in a spectacular fashion when he opens the door in heels and a dress.
James McAvoy is utterly transfixing in this role, unpredictable and having terrific fun but somehow managing to find the tragic humanity amongst it all. As the film progresses and events take on an ever more supernatural extreme curve he always finds the truth in it all. The cleverness of his performance is in the little details, the subtle changes in his physicality, in his voice and the ease in which he switches between them. Although playing a man with an actual condition (dissociative personality disorder) but using it in the context of a thriller may not go down so well with those who seek to help such individuals. Fortunately Shyamalan never overplays the science of it, instead opting to use it as a jumping off point for B-Movie flights of fancy, if it had been taken too seriously the stupidity of it all would have been much more evident.
Moments concerning the more psychoanalytical side of things are saved for a number of scenes featuring Kevin and his psychiatrist Dr Fletcher (Buckley), as she questions his numerous personalities. Buckley is a warm presence but adds a nice sideline in darkness as it becomes clear she is pushing Kevin’s differing voices in order to build her standing in a community that doesn’t quite believe in the power of this disorder. A choice that inevitably leads to her downfall. These scenes between her and McAvoy are a handy breather in between the high tension of the kidnapped girls plight.
Shyamalan consistently offsets the audience, favouring a build up of sweaty palms through character rather than jump scares. He maintains a steady stream of unpredictability with even his editing style sometimes becoming fragmented in order to convey the damaged mind of his central protagonist. Not to mention a disconcerting score from West Dylan-Thordson. But for all the praise that will be heaped upon him and his main star, for my money Anya Taylor-Joy is the real champion here. She has a tricky role to play, her closed off and cold demeanour only becoming clear as events proceed. Thanks to some well placed and quietly powerful flashbacks the true pain of her soul is quietly devastating, and pays off handsomely in the closing moments. Building on her sterling work in last years The Witch, she marks herself as a real talent for the future with her vulnerable eyes giving a vital window into the sorrow. Sadly her fellow captives are by the story’s nature likeable but thin characters, disappearing from the film for vast amounts of time.
Of course you will have heard of the very very late in the day twist to the film, and I will not spoil it for you here, but suffice to say it is less of a twist more of a re-calibration of events. Managing to add new depths to the story’s meaning but in no way detracting from the central conceit. It is a turn I’m yearning to talk about but one in which we must stay quiet about until the film has played wider. All this buzz around twists should not take away from the fact that Shyamalan is back on form here, merging the high concept with forceful guttural thrills. Let’s hope he’s here to stay this time!
Verdict: McAvoy shines as a new kind of movie monster, in a film that subverts expectations at every opportunity. It is a tense, unpredictable and thrilling return to form for M.Night Shyamalan.