Review: McAvoy a force in “Split,” Shyamalan continues to underwhelm

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



Through masterful directing and powerful performances, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby presents a hell worth experiencing

The conventional love story is a genre that can be told a multitude of ways. Most of them are tales of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, a la When Harry Met Sally. Others are stories of romances that for some reason or another, can never be, like Titanic.

And then some are movies which focus on two people beyond their happily ever after, which make for some of the most powerful entries in the genre. Blue Valentine. Juno. Even Pixar’s Up. And now The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, written and directed by Ned Benson.

Rigby tells the story of Conor and Eleanor (yes she is named after that Eleanor Rigby) as they deal with the aftermath of what the audience can only assume was the fallout of their previous relationship, which we only get glimpses of throughout the film.

It should be noted that Benson originally made two films for Rigby, one from Conor’s perspective and one from Eleanor’s, which have received nothing but rave reviews at movie festivals since its debut. Benson made one film, edited together from his two films, for wide release, and consequently we have The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. 

But in no way is it a lesser product than Benson’s duo of films. Rigby is one of the most brutally honest and bleakly  hopeful films of the last few years. It is in itself a paradox which raises lots of questions about romance and rediscovering oneself beyond the breakup in which both parties are innocent of any wrongdoing.

Rigby starts off in a rather jarring way, with both Conor and Eleanor forced to cope with a newly fragmented relationship they both thought would never end. Conor is doing whatever he can to get Eleanor back; he is relentless almost to the point of recklessness. Eleanor, on the other hand, is confused as to what distraction will prove to be her next step in life.

They’re essentially lost souls trapped in another time and place.

Both are confused about their roles to the point that they don’t know why they do certain things while they’re in the middle of doing them. Conor at one point follows Eleanor around New York, but decided to break off without talking to her. Eleanor goes to classes just for the sake of doing something. They try to search for the people they were before, but Conor is the only one who realizes that being with Eleanor permanently changed him.

The concept sounds dreary and, frankly, depressing, but Benson’s excellent direction makes us believe there is some thread of destiny still connecting them. Even Eleanor sometimes yearns for the piece of herself she left in Conor.

The most emotionally charged moments come in the few scenes where Conor and Eleanor are together, not trying to work things out but trying to figure out what went wrong. Darkly contrasting them are the sparse peeks we get at their “happily ever after”, when they were young and innocent and didn’t think they would change. Essentially the film’s theme is summed up when Conor’s dad says, “A shooting star lasts only a second, but aren’t you glad to have at least seen it?”

The tone Benson employs justifies that statement to impressive effect. It’s an emotionally exhausting film; the audience is forced to go through the same ordeal as Conor and Eleanor. But we like being in their company, because Rigby isn’t about one person trying to redeem themselves from cheating or some other blow. It offers a different type of problem, one that may be incapable of being fixed.

The biggest reason for Rigby being so effective, by a long shot, are the dynamic, torturous performances of James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. It’s easy to say that their portrayals of Conor and Eleanor are their best to date. And that’s saying something for Jessica Chastain (The Help, The Tree of Life), who has a Best Actress Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty. She continues to add to her superb resume as someone who should be talked about much more than she is. 

McAvoy (X-Men: Days of Future Past, First Class, Wanted) also turns in a believable and supremely gloomy role as someone torn between going after lost love and moving on. He excels at balancing his hopelessness with the shock he goes through when he realizes the most important thing in his life is gone.

rigby hah

Bill Hader (SNL, Superbad) and Viola Davis (The Help) turn in great supporting roles as friends helping the couple to cope. The venerable William Hurt also appears in the film, and he is as fantastic as ever.

The film’s writing, also done by Ned Benson, is a thing of beauty. Conor and Eleanor never have too much to say because they’re too busy keeping to themselves, but when they do engage in conversation it is easy to see how transparent their lives have become. There is a melancholy tone in what they say which suggests that they both know they can’t fix things, but it still might be worth a try.

And that’s the main point that The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby gets across. Sometimes happily ever after lasts only a short while, and though something may end too soon, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cherish it.

In a Nutshell

Benson, a relatively as-yet-unknown, invents a superb effort of a broken relationship as viewed by both parties. Even though this is just an edit of the two original films he created, the message and impact is still prevalent and as powerful as ever, thanks in large part to two rising stars in McAvoy and Chastain. It is the anti-social twin of The Notebook, and that is in every way refreshing.

9 / 10 or If you’re tired of the conventional and cliched romance, and even if you’re not, check out this unique and pioneering film.


The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is rated R for language 

Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain

Directed by: Ned Benson