Film review: Split – James McAvoy stars as creepy mental patient in M. Night Shyamalan’s major return to form
McAvoy plays a mentally ill man with 23 separate personalities who kidnaps three girls and keeps them in his basement in Shyamalan’s compelling film
In Split, James McAvoy plays Barry, a likeable fashionista. He’s also Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy. And Dennis and Patricia and Orwell and Jade. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if he took on all 23 of the characters swimming around inside Kevin, the luckless sufferer of the multiple personality disorder that he plays.
It’s a sensational performance (or performances) from McAvoy, switching between many of these oddballs as they struggle to become the dominant force inside their host. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who hasn’t made a film this compelling since 2002’s Signs, Split is also a co-production with Blumhouse – the company behind Paranormal Activity, The Purge and many of the most effective recent horror films.
It isn’t exactly a horror film, but it flirts with the genre – blending such tropes with elements of the kidnap drama and psychological thriller – after “Dennis”, one of Kevin’s more troubled personalities rises to the surface and captures three teenage girls in a car park.
If Split looks like it’s going to be yet another torture porn movie, Shyamalan has lots of other ideas as the girls – friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and outsider Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) – try to escape the basement in which they’re incarcerated. With Kevin’s various personalities rearing their heads – some friendly, some not – it’s Casey, a girl with her own past traumas, who gradually realises how to speak to this damaged individual.
Cutting between these scenes and ones with psychologist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is beginning to sense something is amiss as “Barry” repeatedly requests sessions with her, Shyamalan brings the strands together simply but effectively in the final third.
True to form, he takes a small cameo and there’s a mini-twist in the finale, recalling one of his earlier films. While fans will get a kick from that scene, it’s a little gratuitous. But it shouldn’t distract from what’s an absorbing ride.
Split opens on January 19
Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook