An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.
While “Split” isn’t the Shyamalanaissance that many were perhaps hoping it would be, the film does feature a bit of a revelatory turn by James McAvoy, embracing range that we’ve only seen glimpses of in his earlier works.
As with his films, director M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been a bit of an enigma. After venturing onto the scene with a handful of films that were fresh and innovative, he hasn’t been able to regain that sense of wonder in the nearly two decades since.
“Split” is an admirable attempt. While it has its tense moments, and sets things up rather nicely for the finish, it doesn’t ever really get there. Or if it does, it crawls across the finish line. It’s an underwhelming effort to highlight the long-lasting effects of abuse, disguised as an over-the-top exploration of Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Which is where James McAvoy comes in. Roaring in, actually, with a performance that is so magnetic it’s hard to pull your eyes away. Consequently, “Split” by default takes several steps back when he isn’t on the screen.
Though the marketing campaign for “Split” touts 23 different personalities that McAvoy’s character has, there’s really only four or five that have significant screentime. They’re varied enough, but it’s a testament to McAvoy’s performance that they truly feel like different characters, with separate bodies as well as motives.
The film’s first two acts are full of sequences where McAvoy shows off his talents, but it’s clear from the very first moments of “Split” that Shyamalan’s script he focuses on the wrong character – Anya Taylor-Joy’s standoffish Casey.
We get some flashbacks into moments of Casey’s life as a young girl that are meant to serve as explanations for who she eventually became, but there’s a problem – it’s just hard for us to care. It doesn’t seem like Shyamalan does either, as McAvoy’s scenes are much better-directed, and simply more compelling.
This being a Shyamalan film, we’re expecting a final-act revelation that turns everything on its head, an expectation that twist-obsessed director is at fault for implementing over the years. Unfortunately in “Split,” guessing the conclusion is more satisfying than the final itself. It’s a revelation of the intellectual kind, rather than an in-your-face moment of catharsis.
At best, it can be at appreciated what Shyamalan was trying to strive for with the setup and eventual payoff. At worst, you’ll be very confused once the credits roll. It legitimately feels like there’s something we missed, some clue to make sense of it all, when in reality this is, disappointingly, one of the more straightforward Shyamalan efforts.
Which, because of McAvoy’s performance, is fine. He is a force, making an early case for one of the most memorable performances of 2017. He not only carries the movie – he singlehandedly elevates it from being stuck in Shyamalan movie purgatory, to a sign that the director might be on the road back to relevance.
Here’s hoping he sees it as a benchmark, and not the peak.
“Split” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some langauge
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan