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James McAvoy Gives a Master-Class Performance in "Split"

March 19, 2017

M. Night Shyamalan has had an interesting career. Despite making a splash with his debut film The Sixth Sense, after the release of The Village, he began receiving more critical backlash from critics and audiences alike to the point where his name became a punchline in the movie world. However, with 2015's The Visit, he seemed to have gained much of his goodwill back with the horror-comedy. With Split, it would appear that M. Night Shyamalan has established his comeback.

 

Split tells the story of Kevin (James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class, Atonement), a man with 23 alternate personalities living inside him, and the three victims he abducts. The one with whom we spend the most time (and is frankly the most interesting of the bunch) is Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), an outcast who, shortly before the abduction, was invited to fellow abductee Clair's (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen) birthday party as a pity invite, to the chagrin of everyone, including the third abductee Marcia (Jessica Sula, Skins). The girls must try to escape the makeshift dungeon that Kevin's personalities have created for them before a dreaded and powerful 24th personality, "The Beast," emerges.

 

Split is a very enjoyable movie-going experience, often thrilling and rather fast-paced, even for its very few locations. The stand-out of the film is easily James McAvoy as he portrays about eight different characters, each with a very distinctive personality and demeanor that when he shifts, though he himself does not change, we know that we are seeing a very different character. I even began to feel calmer when his 9-year-old persona Hedwig would appear and a more worried when his OCD, perverted persona Dennis would manifest. Sometimes, McAvoy would shift one character to another without a cut in the film. It's further helped by Shyamalan giving us a good illustration of what goes on in Kevin's head as the different personalities pine for "the light." It's truly a magnificent performance that should seriously be remembered for awards consideration. Anya Taylor-Joy also gives a nice subdued performance in the film, and stands her own against McAvoy's powerhouse. Even the two other girls, though their characters are quite vapid, don't go for the absolute easiest acting choices, and give good performances of their own.

 

As stated, the film is a rather fun ride though it isn't afraid to get dark. A good chunk of the film consists of flashbacks that reveal elements of Kevin and Casey's respective backgrounds that explain why they are the way they are now. While at least Casey's start off docile and just interesting, they end up in very disturbing places that disturbed me to the core and very much horrified me. Furthermore, there are certain images and scenes in the film, mostly towards the end, that are shocking and really push that PG-13 line. Without spoiling anything, it makes the MPAA's dispute that The Village be rated R if a squishing sound in a certain knife stabbing wasn't taken out seem like a very silly argument in retrospect. But to relate this back to the career of Shyamalan, it reminds me of his underrated film Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis. In Split, the characters' trauma and core wounds give them their power: for Kevin, it spurred on the different personalities, and for Casey, it brought about knowledge to survive. In Unbreakable, Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah "Mr. Glass" Price finds worth in the comic books he escaped to in his frail state and finds purpose in his search for Bruce Willis's David Dunn, who is suffering from a shattering marriage that encourages him to be a better man as he discovers his near-invincibility.

 

Throughout the film, Shyamalan has to write dialogue for three teenage girls as well as a childish personality. I think he did an admirable job in emulating what real teenagers and children would say without going into stereotype territory. They also don't feel like old-fashioned Shyamalan, either, which was very self-serious and meant to be spoken almost solemnly. Unfortunately, while I do commend him for some believable dialogue, I feel like the script is the weakest part of the film. Much of the dialogue, I felt, came off as over-expository. For example: in the first scene, Clair complains to her dad that Casey is an outcast in her art class that is always getting into detention, etc. In a later scene, though, Casey re-reveals that information to "Hedwig" when trying to empathize with him. Many of Kevin's psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher's (Betty Buckley, Carrie, The Happening), lines also come off as exposition. Don't get me wrong here: exposition is important. Much like theatre, our only information about a cinematic world comes from various setting clues and characters' words, therefore making exposition a necessity. However, there are ways to make it seem natural, and while Shyamalan does set up appropriate situations for expository dialogue, the occasionally awkward and frequent use of it makes it stick out, to me, like a sore thumb. It's even more glaring when the film leaves its ending somewhat unresolved and ambiguous when much else seemed given on a silver platter. There are still plenty of surprises, including one at the end that gave me the most prolonged set of goosebumps I have ever experienced in a movie theater.

All in all, Split is a great comeback for M. Night Shyamalan, packing in great performances with plenty of dark thrills and surprises that push the boundaries of PG-13, even if the script needed some work. I really enjoyed myself throughout, and if you do have a chance to catch in a theater, take it! I give Split 4 out of 5 stars. It is a very exciting time to be an M. Night Shyamalan fan.

 

So what about you? Have you seen Split? What did you think of it? What's your favorite film by Shyamalan? I will ask that you refrain from spoilers regarding the reveal in the comments if you choose to comment, for the sake of those who haven't yet seen the film. Now, whatever you have to say about me or the movies, comment below!

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