Split – Movie Review
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Review by David Turpin
James McAvoy has long been the junior champion of a certain kind of capital-A Acting. The actual quality of that Acting is almost incidental – there’s just so much of it to go round. McAvoy has flirted with multiple-personality roles before – in Danny Boyle’s ham-fisted amnesia guff Trance (2013), for instance – but Split gives him an opportunity to really set out his stall, as M. Night Shyamalan’s horror-suspense-whatsit purports to be about a man with no less than 23 distinct personalities.
The reality is rather more prosaic. McAvoy’s “Kevin” only significantly exhibits four or five distinct personae – one hesitates to call them personalities – in the course of this over-extended yarn. One of them persistently raises an eyebrow; one of them frowns a lot; one of them is a lisping child who repeatedly says “et cetera” for no particular reason; one of them is a fairly garden-variety gay stereotype. None of them are exactly masterclasses in nuanced characterisation.
The story is set in motion when one of these personalities kidnaps a trio of teenage girls – troubled but resourceful Casey (Taylor-Joy), and make-weights Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Hayley Lu Richardson). The girls are stashed in a sinister but expansive basement lair, where Shyamalan contrives to have Sula and Richardson reduced to various states of undress while marking time until Casey faces up to Kevin’s much-ballyhooed 24th personality, referred to only as “The Beast”.
Shyamalan opens out this claustrophobic – and, admittedly, occasionally tense – scenario by repeatedly cutting to a secondary plot involving Kevin’s therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who knows he’s up to something, but can’t quite seem to figure out what. Buckley is a good actress, but Shyamalan is doing her no favours here – particularly with a string of remarkably ungrammatical lines that one assumes would never cross the lips of a working psychiatrist. This correspondent kept expecting tortured lines such as “Whom am I speaking with and whom am I not” and “I like to know to whom I am speaking with” would eventually reveal themselves to be clues to some kind of twist involving the disintegration of Kevin’s consciousness. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that, in fact, Shyamalan just needs a proof-reader.
As McAvoy’s one-man show eventually evolves into the kind of RADA-approved gurning and torso flexing in which Kenneth Branagh used to specialise, Taylor-Joy quietly walks off with the film. Shyamalan doesn’t use her arresting stillness as effectively as Robert Eggers did in her breakthrough film, The Witch (2015), but it’s always enjoyable to watch a performer do a lot with a little. Perhaps her leading man could take notes.