Movie Review: Split
117 mins ★★★½
A wise man recently opined that James McAvoy seems to have carved a career out of being the best thing in a bunch of average movies.
It's a good point. While I am a big fan of 2011's terrific X-Men origin story, it was definitely the versatile Scot who put most of the heft into making it First Class. Not only is he a talented actor, but he seems to be able to play anyone and anything. In his 20-year career, McAvoy has been Mr Tumnus the fawn in the Narnia movies, and held his own against Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. He has a face for period drama (Atonement) and a voice for animation (Gnomeo & Juliet). So "range" is indisputably a key word on his acting resumé.
Split may be billed as the latest bit of intrigue from M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) but, in the lead role and playing 24 different personalities, it's unquestionably McAvoy's movie. (Actually, technically he only unleashes about eight of those personages, but it's still impressive.) He steals every scene, morphing from a self-composed matron in dowdy roll-necked jumper to a cheeky little boy with a lisp, and the actor's flair for jumping out of one skin into the next, often mid-sentence, is magnetic.
Even if you haven't seen the trailer (though if you haven't, don't – it ruins some of the fun surprises), it's not a spoiler to say that McAvoy's portrayal of a disturbed man who kidnaps three teenage girls for mysterious reasons is the main reason you should see this film. However, Shyamalan's trademark imagination does take us into some pretty clever narrative places initially: there's a fascinating hypothesis about the mind's ability to physically change the body which might just have a kernel of truth to it, and the cinematography and production design smartly evoke seminal psychological thrillers such as The Silence of the Lambs (to which Split makes many, fun-to-spot, references) and 10 Cloverfield Lane.
The teenage victims mostly perform their stock roles without fanfare, although special mention goes to Anya Taylor-Joy who gained rave reviews for her central role in 2015's indie hit The Witch. As our plucky heroine, she makes leaps of wisdom which serve the plot more than is realistic, but she's the only character in the film who gives McAvoy's multiple personalities a run for their money.
But after an enthralling first act, the plot begins to lose its grip slightly, and suddenly the film itself morphs into something other than it first promised. As it unravels and starts to fall into cliché, you're left wondering whether Shyamalan has squandered the opportunity to create another Signs and instead wandered into The Happening territory.
But then it goes and delivers a hell of a kicker at the end, and many fans will excitedly anticipate what he has next in store. So maybe Shyamalan knew what he was doing after all.