James McAvoy saves otherwise disappointing ‘Split’

James McAvoy in 'Split'
James McAvoy in ‘Split’

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, Split, seemed like a glimmer of hope for Shyamalan supporters. It had all the makings of a perfect thriller. A hostage situation created by a maniac suffering with dissociative identity disorder should be enough to keep its audience on the edge of their seats.

Unfortunately, Split let us down, leading us to conclude that Shyamalan’s success with movies such as The Sixth Sense and Signs, were flukes rather than a testament to his visionary talent.

Split doesn’t waste any time with exposition and jumps right into the story: the abduction of three teenage girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula). They are drugged and taken to the mold-ridden basement abode of Kevin, Barry, Hedwig, Patricia, and 19 other identities all stuck inside a man portrayed by James McAvoy.

But unlike Shyamalan’s other thrillers, Split doesn’t grab its audience at the start. In fact, the entire hour and 57 minutes feels monotonous and moves at a dawdling pace one would not expect from the thriller genre.

The scenes that are interesting — those involving Kevin (McAvoy’s character’s birth identity) and the abducted girls — are interspersed with scenes of Kevin visiting Dr. Fletcher, his psychologist (Betty Buckley). While such scenes provide more information about Kevin’s condition, they usually drag on and make the movie lose its already fragile momentum.

Anya Taylor-Joy in 'Split'
Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘Split’

The movie picks up when we realize that Kevin’s identities are vying for the “light”, or the ability to take over his conscious mind. Two suppressed rogue identities assume control of his mind and prepare to welcome in a sinister 24th identity, nicknamed “the beast”. At the same time, the three abducted girls try to figure out a way to turn Kevin’s identities against each other, all while in their underwear for the majority of the movie.

More than a mind-bending thriller, Split is chiefly a testament to McAvoy’s superior acting prowess. It is almost impossible to confuse which identity is in control of Kevin’s mind, thanks to McAvoy’s ability to harness every muscle in his body to shape shift into a gamut of different people, including a British woman and a 9-year-old boy with a spot-on lisp. McAvoy’s face, voice, posture and movements contort to assume each of the 8 out of 23 identities that are portrayed on the screen, and it is a pleasure to behold.

As a result, McAvoy hijacks Split, leaving little room for the other characters to shine. Casey, an abductee with an unfortunate past of her own, is given little screen time and her storyline is underdeveloped, leading to an ending that seems forced and underwhelming.

At its best, Split represents a halfhearted return to the golden age of M. Night Shyamalan’s mind-benders. At its worst, it confirms that the glory days of Shyamalan’s talents are far behind him.

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