Split Review: James McAvoy Wows In M. Night Shylaman’s Suitably Schizophrenic Film

The Sixth Sense director's latest film will undoubtedly divide opinion.

James McAvoy in Split.
James McAvoy Wows in Split Image Universal

117 minutes (15)

The films of M. Night Shylaman can be roughly divided into two distinct categories.

On the one hand, you have the patient supernatural character studies of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, slow burning scare stories that build to a climactic twist.

More recently, his foray into found footage horror with The Visit, also found a way of falling into this same category, albeit with a more modern take on proceedings. 

Then you have the more adventurous, risky and often misfiring fare of The Village, Lady In The Water and The Happening.

Offering outlandish, if fundamentally flawed, visions of an alternate reality populated by mythical beings, secret societies and killer clouds, these movies may have miss the mark but nevertheless warrant praise for at least trying something new. 

With this duality in mind, it seems somewhat appropriate that Split, a film with a man who suffers multiple-split-personality disorder at its centre, should be suitability schizophrenic in displaying elements of both approaches.

On the one hand Split is, at heart, a character study with James McAvoy’s disturbed Kevin Crumb at the heart of proceedings as the troubled kidnapper of three innocent teenage girls.

Undoubtedly McAvoy’s most deranged performance to date, the film lives and dies with the Scot’s performance so it’s pleasing to report that he excels at the challenge.

A demented and enjoyable acting tour-de-force, McAvoy is every bit the 23 personalities his character claims to possess, turning from child-like to effeminate to menacing with the close of a door. 

It’s only when his 24th personality emerges that things get a little problematic, but more on that latter.

In terms of the classic horror-tinged character study we have come to expect from Shylaman, McAvoy is ably supported Anya Taylor-Joy as the captive Casey Cook.

Any Taylor Joy in Split
Anya Taylor Joy In Split Image Universal

Cast as the film’s heroine, the 20-year-old is fast emerging as one to watch in Hollywood, following up a star-making turn in The Witch with an understated performance as a damaged girl with a dark secret of her own that provides one of the film’s two twists. 

Away from the character examinations, however, Split falls back into the more outlandish territory Shylaman has visited in his less celebrated work.

Make no mistake: Shylaman’s direction throughout remains strong, with the director’s camera setups and use of colours to contrast the dank, claustrophobia of Crumb’s mysterious lair with the bright, breezy open space of his psychiatrist’s office noted.

The tension steadily builds too, with viewers no doubt familiar that, with this being a Shylaman movie, nothing is what it seems. It’s only when the film enters a messy, climactic final third, that the problems begin.

It’s here that the director’s  penchant for the supernatural begins to shine through a little too brightly.

In particular, it’s McAvoy’s credibility-stretching transformation into his terrifying 24th personality that proves somewhat problematic, with the actor’s performance transitioning from one of multi-faceted character study to Freddy Krueger-type bogeyman complete with horror movie clichés aplenty.

James McAvoy in Split.
James McAvoy In Split Image Universal

Out of nowhere the film goes from a schlocky, enjoyable, B-movie effort into something almost a little too outlandish and supernaturally-focused.

More importantly, the gruesome violence and disturbing, adult themes (child abuse, cannibalism and self harm, anyone?) comes to the fore with the more unstated approach of the opening replaced with a conclusion that’s bloody but unsatisfying save for a last-reel twist that will send the fan boys into raptures.

Despite this Shylaman must be applauded for crafting an enjoyably daft thriller that, while building to an anti-climax, is packed with enough ideas and maniacal fun to make it worthy of a watch.

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