James McAvoy is tremendous in Split

Sarah Posted by Sarah at January 20, 2017 15:29:27 January 20, 2017 15:29:27

Following The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan continues his return to form with Split. It’s his second collaboration with Blumhouse Pictures, and where in The Visit there is discernable friction between Shyamalan’s impulse to go big and Blumhouse’s frugal, lo-fi approach to filmmaking, in Split there is no such tension as Shyamalan combines the best of his cinematic trickery with a more grounded technical approach that keeps him honest as a storyteller. Split gets ridiculous at times—there is rather a lot of unintentional comedy—but it also recalls all the promise Shyamalan showed with The Sixth Sense. There’s a lot to like about Split that comes from Shyamalan, but there’s really only one reason to see it: James McAvoy’s TREMENDOUS performance.

Split lives and dies by McAvoy’s performance as Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Kevin has twenty-three personalities, and McAvoy gives an Olympic performance embodying many of them throughout the film. It’s not a secret that he’s a good actor, but this is one of those roles that really drives home HOW GOOD James McAvoy is, and how f*cking easy he makes it look. He rotates through accents and personalities like a snake shedding skin, slipping from one to another without even blinking. It’s an astounding performance, already setting the bar for 2017 very, very high.

But he’s not performing in a vacuum. He’s joined by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jessica Sula (Skins), playing a trio of girls who are kidnapped by one of Kevin’s personalities. Richardson and Sula don’t have a ton to do besides be typical horror movie jail bait—though Richardson is kind of hilarious as the over-confident Claire, thinking that six months of kenpo classes at the mall will save her—but Taylor-Joy is stellar as Casey, the borderline delinquent classmate who has the patience and cleverness to try and get them out of their predicament.

And helping them all along is Shyamalan and his intelligent camerawork (lensed by cinematographer Michael Giulakis, It Follows). Shyamalan is so good at framing and composition, and in Split his use of perspective keeps the limited landscape of Kevin’s dungeon-like home interesting. You see only what Shyamalan wants you to see, and often from the perspective of characters, so that we learn information as they do, which feeds the urgency and tension throughout the film.

But there’s no real twist to this one. Which is maybe a twist in and of itself—M. Night Shyamalan wrote a movie in which the narrative proceeds straightforward and information learned in act one pays off in act three. One of the most enjoyable things about Split is how every single element of the story is paid off, which makes watching it feel more like opening a present than trying to “beat it” like it’s a video game. (There is a mid-credit surprise, though, so don’t walk out as soon as it’s over.)

No matter how good the other elements of the movie are, though, it all comes back to McAvoy. Split just doesn’t work without him. He’s 100% committed to his performance and yet never seems to be laboring at it. There aren’t many actors who can deliver on this level, and even among that rarified set I don’t think any of them can do what McAvoy is doing here. Without him, Split falls apart, but the combination of his charm and physical ability powers the whole movie. Even when the movie trends into ridiculous territory, McAvoy’s conviction continues to sell it and keep you invested in the (increasingly silly) story. Split is a solid return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, but it’s really James McAvoy’s movie. It’s worth seeing for McAvoy alone.

Attached- James promoting Split this week in New York. 

FameFlynet, NBC/ Laura Cavanaugh/ Roy Rochlin/ Jim Spellman/ Getty Images

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