Split Review: James McAvoy Shines in a Return to Form For Shyamalan

By Jack Mansfield

I was a little sceptical at first about going to see thriller Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016), after director M. Night Shyamalan’s recent track record. Most recently, he wrote and directed the rather awful After Earth (2013), and, going further back a few years, the equally awful Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010), so I reserved the right to be wary of his new project hitting cinemas. However, this would not always have been the case: Shyamalan has also given audiences some brilliant films, such as The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). It was disappointing to see Shyamalan’s projects drop both in quality and acclaim during the 2000s, but Split is undoubtedly some of his best work since the turn of the millennium.

Split tells the story of Kevin Wendell Crumb (played brilliantly by James McAvoy), a man suffering from DID – dissociative identity disorder – causing him to be split between 23 individual personalities. Kevin, under the influence of the ‘leader’ of these personalities, Dennis, abducts three young girls, and it is down to them to work out which of Kevin’s various personalities will help them escape, and which of them could prove to be more dangerous than they imagined, especially with the coming of a terrifying 24th. The film does a great job of creating (and maintaining, for the majority of its two-hour runtime) an atmosphere of high tension and suspense, and does this through the claustrophobic setting to which both the three girls as well as the audience are none the wiser as to its location.

This film is driven, however, by the masterful performance (or performances) by James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb and his accompanying personalities. McAvoy, in possibly  his best role yet, plays each personality with such variety that the audience could easily forget that all of these different characters are played by one man. The personalities include an intimidating leader in Dennis, a man with an obsessive compulsion to clean coupled with an interest in watching the girls “dance” for him; Patricia, an eloquent yet equally as frightening woman  whose desire to control the other personalities makes her just as dangerous as Dennis; and nine year-old Hedwig, Kevin’s childish personality whom the girls realise is potentially their best chance of escape. These three personalities are at the forefront for most of the film, sharing the “light” as they refer to it, but McAvoy also portrays a handful of the other personalities with a brilliant attention to detail, meaning that no two personalities feel in any way similar to one another. The audience only truly meets eight of the twenty-four personalities, and I think this is a very smart move on Shyamalan’s part: trying to give screen time to all of these various personalities would have caused the film to become a confusing mess, and Shyamalan finds the perfect balance between eight highly intriguing ones.

James McAvoy as Hedwig in Split.

Starring alongside McAvoy are a small supporting cast, each giving strong performances in their own right. Perhaps the strongest of these performances is Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the three abducted girls who reluctantly assumes the role of leader in their attempts to escape Kevin. Casey is initially seen as the outcast by the other girls, but when they are thrust into this hostile environment, they look to her for guidance and Taylor-Joy gives a strong performance in this role: Casey is frightened, but resourceful and smart, and the relationship between her and Kevin’s personalities provides a strong narrative throughout. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula also give good performances as Claire and Marcia respectively, despite their characters being less developed than Casey. The final supporting character of note is Dr Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s therapist and one of the leading minds in DID; the scenes shared between her and Kevin are some of the more unexpected tense moments in the film, as both the audience and Dr Fletcher know of Kevin’s capabilities: there is every chance that the apparent mutual respect, constantly building the tension, could suddenly fall apart.

On top of the fantastic performances by McAvoy, Shyamalan’s knowledge of how to hold an audience in suspense is used to full effect in this film. I often found myself on the edge of my seat, with seemingly calm scenes always having me wary of a bubbling tension just under the surface. For example, in any scene where the girls think they see an opening to escape, it is the ‘will they/won’t they’ dilemma that often builds an air of suspense, and with each release I could feel other members of the audience flinching, or even jumping out of their seats. But the suspense keeps on coming, with only very few dips in pacing. The film features flashback scenes which I feel somewhat waste the tension that was being built up in the former scenes. Nonetheless, without wanting to spoil any of the film (as I believe it has to be seen to truly appreciate all of the twists and turns that Shyamalan pulls off), these flashbacks are necessary to deliver a gut-punch of an ending; it is a shame however that there was not some other way that this could have been achieved without dropping the tension in places.

Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula in Split. 

M. Night Shyamalan has come to be known for his plot twists, whether genius or baffling, in most of his films. I was sat watching Split wondering if the classic Shyamalan twist was on its way, but it seemed like the film was going to simply progress at a simple, easy-to-understand pace; yet, I was very pleasantly surprised to see one of the biggest twists he has ever pulled off in the very final shot of the film. Again, in an attempt to avoid spoilers, all I’ll say is that, if you are a fan of Shyamalan’s earlier work, this twist will really hit – if not, you won’t understand what’s going on. In a near-packed screening, I was the only one to gasp (rather loudly, whoops) at the twist, and found myself being looked at by many a puzzled face.

Split is undoubtedly a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, and I will no doubt be looking forward to his next project.

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