Review: Split (2017)

McAvoy is firing on all cylinders as M. Night Shyamalan directs some of his strongest work since Unbreakable.

Split (2017).

Director: M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Visit).

Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula.

The ‘split personality’ has long been a cinematic trope, but M. Night Shyamalan together with James McAvoy bring in new ideas and avoid typical horror clichés in Split, a return to form for the director.

McAvoy plays Kevin, an individual with 23 different personalities, as he suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). It’s clear he enjoys this character (or characters), as it shows through his performance. Whether he’s the intensely creepy ‘Dennis’, the lady ‘Patricia’, or the nine-year-old ‘Hedwig’, McAvoy always feels forbidding in his presentation.

Kevin has multiple personalities, one is a nine-year-old boy named ‘Hedwig’. | Universal Pictures

Shyamalan’s script is generally well-written, apart from a few cases of expository verbal diarrhoea. It starts to slip towards the film’s conclusion too, but it’s a noticeable step up from his most recent work.

The film follows three storylines which each have generally satisfying conclusions as they start to intertwine. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnapped by McAvoy’s character, Kevin. As we watch them try to escape their captor, we are gradually given flashbacks of Casey’s past, and we learn more about Kevin through his visits with his therapist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley).

It’s during these sessions where we see McAvoy stretch his acting skills the most. Look carefully through the film and you’ll notice that each personality has different tics, body language, dialect and so forth. It’s surreal to watch the actor play two or three different people at a time, but he manages it effectively.

James McAvoy and Betty Buckley in Split. | Universal Pictures

Praise should be given toward the actresses too. It’s awfully easy to fall into cliché when you’re a young woman in a horror film, but unlike many other female leads, I didn’t hate them. I was rooting for them to escape the clutches of this dangerous individual. Anya Taylor-Joy gets the most development out of the three, rightfully so as she’s the better actress here. I truly sympathised for her which I was not expecting.

Shyamalan does a lot with a little budget (relative to his previous films). I’m finding that the horror and thriller films with smaller budgets tend to be the more powerful ones. Both Unfriended (2014) and Hush (2016) had budgets of one million dollars, and while Shyamalan’s budget was five times the size of that, the film still felt humble.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Caesy in Split. | Universal Pictures

Cinematographer Mike Giolakis who also assisted on 2014’s critically acclaimed It Follows, aids Shyamalan in shooting an interesting and tense film. It’s good to see the director back on the up after the likes of After Earth and The Last Airbender. While many believe The Visit was a return to form for the director, in my eyes, Split is the better, most-recent work.

Split avoids both typical horror clichés as well as Shyamalan tropes too. There’s no dramatic twist that changes the way you’ll think about the film, instead it has a generally satisfying ending, with a little something for fans of the director to get excited about.


Feature image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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