Like the varying voices that shape James McAvoy’s performance(s) in Split, my mind is filled with conflicting opinions about M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller. McAvoy’s numerous appearances make for a transfixing theatrical experience, while devotion to parbaked themes and collegiate merit make for a jumbled, messy commentary on trauma. Shyamalan plays towards empowering the victim, but loses control of sci-fi terror in doing so. Anya Taylor-Joy proves to be the new genre “It” girl, there’s strength in numbers and we certainly need to talk about Kevin (McAvoy’s true character) – so why the feelings of indifference?
Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy) suffers from a severe case of multiple personalities, twenty-three of whom reside inside his overcrowded body. It’s one of these inhabitants who decides to kidnap three teenage girls with ceremonial intent. Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are in the wrong parking lot at the wrong time, and find themselves locked in Kevin’s custom dungeon. There’s talk of being fed to something, but none of the girls know why they were chosen.
To make matters worse, Kevin – who was actually Dennis during the kidnapping – walks in wearing woman’s clothing and calling
himself herself Patricia. Is their captor playing mind games? Claire and Marcia frantically babble about an escape plan, but Casey remains level-headed in the face of conflict. After the situation reveals itself, the question becomes easy – which personality can be convinced to let the girls free?
Shyamalan’s best work in Split isn’t a buried twist or unnerving horror. Frankly, there isn’t a twist – just a reveal you see coming from ten football fields away. Instead, I look towards Shyamalan’s messages, especially those of disabilities not being treated like a stigma. Betty Buckley’s decorated shrink, Dr. Karen Fletcher, believes that Kevin possesses superhuman powers that were unlocked by traumatic experiences from his past – something “good” coming from such darkness. Sure, Shyamalan may paint broad brushstrokes that lack refined focus, but Split works as a gut-reaction for those lost to abuse, hatred and irreversible “situations.” These people are often held higher than “regular” people by Fletcher’s dialogue, stressing their equal treatment despite “imperfections.”
Of course, then McAvoy goes and becomes a villain because of an internal mutiny of sorts. You see, each of the twenty-three personalities sits in a chair until it’s their turn to “grab the light” (attain conscious control) – until three parties revolt. Patricia (sophisticated/slightly racist lady), Dennis (brute enforcer) and Hedwig (a curious nine-year-old) prepare themselves for the coming of a twenty-forth personality dubbed “The Beast,” making for the film’s conflict. So all that goodwill about elevated mindsets goes belly-up for a vengeful comeuppance, because what genre fan can resist an inner demon being unleashed outward?
Fortunately, McAvoy’s performance is a hurricane of psychosis and varying impressions. Whether he’s dancing (having a small stroke) to Kanye West as Hedwig or gushing over high fashion as designer Barry, McAvoy entertains with equal enthusiasm. No two characters share even the vaguest similarities, as each persona evokes a wholly unique, distinct lifestyle. Movements, accents, thoughts – this goes along with the idea that multiple personalities can alter human bodies based on sheer willpower, which McAvoy goes above and beyond to depict.
During one specific scene, all of Kevin’s alters (personalities) fight for control in frantic succession, and we get the performance moneyshot of McAvoy resisting strenuously as his body cycles through controllers like a computer rebooting on repeat. Range doesn’t even capture it – this might be the Guinness World Record for most actor transformations in the same movie (Sharlto Copley in Hardcore Henry?).
Anya Taylor-Joy is the other standout here, after previously bewitching in The Witch and attempting to salvage Morgan – yet even she feels dwarfed by McAvoy. Nonetheless, her role as Casey provides a “final girl” arc with implicated suffering and plenty of situational charisma. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are forgotten as panic-y little supporting victims (by virtue of having nothing to do but take a shirt and a skirt off?), which leaves plenty of room for Taylor-Joy to flash her genre chops (and avoid genre repetition). The Witch offered a more burning psychological take, while Morgan had her play a cold-blooded killer – she’s a survivor here, a burden she bears with honor.
This all might sound overwhelmingly positive, but Split suffers most once looking past McAvoy, Taylor-Joy and Shyamalan’s best intentions. Where comedics play a larger role than actual horror, and some turned-heads allow for Kevin’s abduction escapade to function without obstacle. Dr. Fletcher glosses over obvious red flags during “requested” meeting sessions (by personalities being held back), while outsiders surprisingly stay away from Kevin’s lair until an opportune moment during the film’s climax.
The ride itself is fun, by unfulfilling when you pair the emotional stakes Shyamalan is willing to wager not only with Kevin’s past, but Casey’s own outcast nature. Flashbacks feel disjointed from the task at hand, and only worsen when you realize the film’s climax actually slows momentum instead of building it. Like I said, the word “twist” shouldn’t be used anywhere near here – even The Visit hid more of a surprise, and that Red Riding Hood story was telegraphed from chapter 1.
Split will shock and awe unprepared audiences, like the girl next to me who was buried underneath her jacket for the film’s final 20 minutes. Others, like myself, will sit stoic and stone-faced during Shyamalan’s savage culmination, no longer endeared by McAvoy’s bodily changing of the guard. At the film’s best, multiple personalities battle for popularity by garnering laughs, sneers and points for individuality. At its worst, a shadowy figure steals screen time from Kevin’s engaging cast of characters, and we get a Hooter’s-defending M. Night cameo (just kidding, actually kind of funny). It’s all a cinematic roll of the dice, so expect divisive results for any parties larger than one – just understand that buildup somehow trounces any forms of payoff.
Oh, and that kinda-post-credits scene? Hard “No” on suggested sequels. Not sure we need a Shyamalaniverse right now.
Split is never as clever or poignant as it thinks it is, but James McAvoy won't let it be forgotten, either.