James McAvoy is a very good actor. A method acting chameleon on par with Tom Hardy or Christian Bale, McAvoy has the power to disappear into a role with both seething, homicidal intensity and manic, childlike, mischievous glee, sometimes within the same scene. Unfortunately the film that brings these revelations to light can’t keep up with the actor’s dexterity, leaving Split merely a rote and unsatisfactory taste of what could have been.
McAvoy, best known as the young Charles Xavier of the recent X-Men films, completely vanishes into the role of Kevin, a deranged young man with 23 personalities vying for “the light” inside his fractured mind. Kevin’s actions turn from disturbing to criminal when he kidnaps 3 teenaged girls (chief amongst them Ana Taylor-Joy’s social outcast Casey) and begins meticulously preparing them for the arrival of “The Beast”, an animalistic, carnivorous 24th personality that Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) insists cannot exist, despite his increasingly unhinged nature during their near constant emails and daily visits.
Typically in these types of torture, capture, home invasion-y, captor-rises-up-against-their-oppressor-despite-mild-Stockholm-syndrome type of movies the tension is continually ratcheted up until it bursts wide open at the climax (the recent Don’t Breathe) did a great job with this), but Split maintains a sort of constant, almost relaxed lull as Kevin goes about his daily routine of vaguely menacing his quarry and visiting with Dr. Fletcher. It’s interesting, and a true showcase for McAvoy for sure, but as the film’s bloated run time swells you’ll be left wondering just when anything is actually going to happen.
Add in the fact that flashbacks to Casey’s father taking her on hunting trips and teaching her how to shoot foreshadows the ending fairly bluntly and inelegantly (shades of the infinitely superior You’re Next) and you’re left with a fairly limp and pointless experience that only serves to remind you of better movies that you’d rather be watching.
Not that M. Night Shyamalan would ever deny being a pastiche artist. Ah yes, this is a Shyamalan joint and his Hitchcock and Kubrick worship continues to be strong, from the Saul Bass-esque title sequence, handful of long takes and series of rather uncomfortable and sustained close ups. Less commendable are the shoehorned in, unnecessary supernatural elements towards the film’s end and the use of sexual abuse and self-harm as cheap, almost throwaway plot points.
Which isn’t to say that I hated the film. Not at all. McAvoy’s performance and the world building around his affliction remains enthralling throughout, it’s just that the film languishes lazily around said performance rather than tightly stalking it as in Psycho or Red Dragon, deflating the stress surrounding Kevin’s dangerous and volatile personae, creating a psychological thriller that’s a little bit too psychological and not at all thrilling. Just like Kevin’s tortured psyche, there’s something at least marginally worthwhile in here somewhere. Whether it’s worth trying to peel back the layers of to find it is up to you.
Split opens everywhere this Friday.