VOD film review: Split
Ivan Radford | On 05, Jun 2017
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy
Watch Split online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
Ever since The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan has been a director known for his twist endings. But it’s a reputation that does him a disservice; he’s not a guy looking constantly to spring surprises on his audience. Rather, he’s a filmmaker who wants to bring them to a point of dawning realisation about something not quite normal. He’s a magical realist, with a fondness for the unnatural, or the supernatural, in everyday life. Less a Hitchcock and more a Spielberg, his twist is always the same: that something extraordinary can exist within the ordinary.
After losing his edge several years ago with more blockbuster-sized efforts, Shyamalan has recently gone back to basics, teaming up with Blumhouse Productions for the smaller, sharper The Visit, a witty, wicked comedy that balances the mundane, but weird, nature of old age with the fear of something more sinister. They reunite for Split, a movie that again roots the extraordinary in the ordinary – two words that are used over and over again by Kevin (James McAvoy) and his therapist (Betty Buckley).
Kevin, we learn, has disassociative identity disorder, with 23 personalities inside his head, each one fighting for their time in the spotlight. Some are funny. Some are nasty. Some are scared of a rumoured 24th, which looms ominously on the fringe of Kevin’s consciousness.
Multiple personalities have long been a cliched staple of the psychological thriller, but Shyamalan finds new depth in old tricks. He reveals his big gambit early on: while split identities have often been depicted on film as separate and independent, what if one identity not only knew of the others, but could impersonate them? How would you then know which one is in control? It’s a masterstroke, turning the hackneyed idea of stronger and weaker personalities into a superhero-like struggle that doesn’t need explosions and toppling skyscrapers to excite: the epic carnage and conflict plays out across one man’s face.
James McAvoy is having the time of his life as Kevin. The actor’s breakthrough turn in Starter for Ten proved he could change his emotions at the drop of a hat, and that same ability to juggle line deliveries and subvert expressions is deployed with relish. He moves effortlessly between the friendly, camp Barry, the naive nine-year-old, Hedwig, and the creepy, motherly Patricia (just watching him say the word “paprika” is a treat). It’s OCD kidnapper Dennis whom we meet first. He’s the one who takes three girls at the start of the film, leaving them trying to escape from his clutches for 90 minutes.
Their interactions are fraught with comedy and tension, as Shyamalan’s taut, shape-shifting script slowly puts its foot on the accelerator. Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey emerges as the story’s second lead, her stillness contrasting with McAvoy’s exuberant presence, while still conveying layers of past pain and silent resolve – a resolve that echoes McAvoy’s own inner strength.
Throughout, Shyamalan’s presentation is as stylish as ever, his camera soaring down corridors and into his cast’s faces with a precision that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The result is an expertly crafted ride that doesn’t need bait-and-switch plot points to deliver its goods. The twist is more to do with genre, as what starts as an inward-looking chamber piece evolves into an outward-looking horror that opens up a world of powerful possibilities. As McAvoy repeatedly transforms for the camera, Split sees the ordinary becoming the extraordinary right in front of us, crafted with the kind of nuance and attention to detail that recalls Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. This is a story-teller back at his best.