In “Split,” James McAvoy embodies seven different personalities within one character, he develops new mannerisms and accents for each one of them, and he even flails wildly in a possessed, near perverse dance to a Madonna song. He’s acting a lot.
But in one scene of talking to his therapist, M. Night Shyamalan drills in tight on McAvoy’s calm face and the miniscule, wavering expression in his gaze. You look into his eyes and you see fear and a whole different person trying to get out.
In “Split,” Shyamalan’s horror premise of a man who suffers from experiencing multiple personalities, 23 in all, may be a gimmick, but McAvoy’s performance isn’t. There are a few costume changes, and he makes a big swing between accents, but McAvoy never has to spaz out, and Shyamalan never has to cut for McAvoy to suggest the fascinating, dangerous tug of war going on inside his head.
In fact the mad nature of McAvoy’s character’s disorder subsumes Shyamalan’s typical need to tantalize us with a big twist. Shyamalan has gone nuts with style and psychological parables, but “Split” brings the director back to fundamental genre roots of the horror/thriller.
The opening is sinister and simple enough. A trio of teenage girls, Casey, Claire and Marcia (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula), are abducted by “Kevin” (McAvoy) when he steps into their car and sprays them with a drug. They wake up trapped in an underground cellar, a trope we’ve seen in horror movies dozens of times before.
However, their captor turns out to be “Dennis,” one of Kevin’s many split personalities. He speaks in a subdued Brooklyn drawl and fastidiously obsesses over dirt and slightly askew objects. We learn in encounters with Kevin’s psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) that Kevin’s trauma allows him to assume entirely different identities that contain new genetic makeups, different voices, and untapped strengths and weaknesses.
Shyamalan is more interested in the idea and complexity of this disability than the logic of it, and honestly attempting to unpack it ruins the fun. Critics have pointed out that “Split” exploits children being tortured and abused for the sake of drama, not to mention how he bends the rules of a psychological disability, but Shyamalan would hardly be the first filmmaker to do so. What’s more, his metaphors for how pain and trauma make us mentally stronger blend with themes he’s peddled in his previous films, specifically “Unbreakable.”
But what’s fresh about “Split” remains the unpredictability of McAvoy’s performance. It’s in the sinister eloquence his alter ego “Patricia” shows as she offers unsolicited trivia tidbits on lions. Ot it’s also in the delirious dance sequence he performs to an aghast Casey. The wide-angle shot distorts our depth perception across the room, and it’s so mesmerizing, it resembles Oscar Isaac dancing with one of his assistants in “Ex Machina.” The whole thing is too disturbing and bizarre to be laugh-out-loud funny or scary in particular, but it’s impossible to look away.
“The broken are the more evolved,” Kevin says near the film’s climax. “Split” may be flawed, but if that statement is true, Shyamalan’s film might be a new classic.
3 ½ stars