For a while, it looked like a graph of M Night Shyamalan’s critical reputation would resemble a steep downward gradient, a plummet from the graceful mystery of The Sixth Sense into the hellish studio nightmare that was The Last Airbender. However, it may now look more like a sine wave as, with Split, he has come the closest to making a ”good” film in years. It’s a slice of B-movie psychological pulp that, while occasionally maddening, will delight fans most inclined to forgive and forget about Lady in the Water.
For one thing, Split matches a great logline with the talent to pull it off. Three girls – Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) – are kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy) and imprisoned in an underground bunker. Kevin sports a tightly buttoned-up shirt, a nasty frown and the terrifying strength to keep them all subjugated. Only the next time they see him, he’s in a dress and high heels, with a delicate English accent; the time after that, his goofy grin and playful attitude make him seem like a nine-year-old child. With cutaways to sessions with his therapist, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), it soon emerges that Kevin suffers from a case of multiple-personality disorder: his mind is filled with eight or nine different people, all with alternative agendas, and all jostling for control.
If that sounds terminally nonsensical, be assured that it is only an excuse for James McAvoy to act his socks off. He inhabits each of his characters so fully, through voices, posture, and nuanced facial mannerisms, that he transcends the cartoonish stereotypes of the cinematic psychopath to become something far more electrifying – sometimes hilarious, sometimes downright terrifying. (A dance sequence is the best of its kind since Dogtooth.) Anya Taylor-Joy is good, too, delivering the same bug-eyed bravery as she did in Robert Eggers’s The Witch. Their performances bring gravitas and tonal control to a film that is, undoubtedly, uneven.
While Shyamalan has a knack for good visual composition and atmosphere, he’s less sure when it comes to pace, or making each moment leading up to the (admittedly exciting) payoff. He’s previously gravitated towards stories of trauma; but here, the dark subject matter clashes with goofy humour, dampening the fun and leaving a rather nasty taste in the mouth. Split is still very good news for fans of this once-hallowed talent, if only for the fact that his next should be amazing.
Split is released nationwide on 20th January 2017.
Watch the trailer for Split here: