Film review: Split

by James Robins / 26 February, 2017

James McAvoy in Split: a return to form.

As a man of many parts, James McAvoy acts his (red) socks off.

Little can be divulged about Split. Given the way M Night Shyamalan works, a plot synopsis is useful for about 10 minutes. Let’s settle for the ­following: three teenage girls are abducted by a bald, drably dressed man (James McAvoy), taken to an underground lair with ­dripping lead pipes and bare concrete walls and held in a room to await their fate. The man, as it turns out, is ­multiple men, and multiple women, too: two dozen distinct personalities and genders writhing in one body. Thus, the next time he – or it – appears, it is as a prim English lady in heels and turtleneck. Then a campy Brooklyn fashion designer, then, most gleefully of all, a nine-year-old boy called Hedwig, who takes great delight in telling his captives about his red socks.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition), we’re dealing with a pronounced case of dissociative identity disorder, though this handbook says nothing about the constant costume changes required for each new manifestation. With so many trips to the wardrobe, it is a wonder this creature manages to get any kidnapping done at all.

Nevertheless, this clever conceit gives the film an offset and deranged feel, and McAvoy gets the chance to act those red socks right off. It’s a highly ostentatious performance, and rather enjoyable to watch, as he slips from one accent and posture to the next, first grinning and slippery, then bloodied and feral. McAvoy probably hasn’t had this much fun since he clogged his nostrils with coke in Irvine Welsh’s Filth.

Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) is ­impressive, too, as Casey, the most ­cerebral of the three captives. It is her past that informs the film’s machinations, as it grinds, at times thrillingly and at others clunkily, towards a self-indulgent and ridiculous conclusion. Of course, such poor discipline is Shyamalan’s ­speciality. His catalogue can be divided into ­excellent chillers (The Sixth Sense) and schlocky nonsense (The Happening). Split is a return to form, though I do wish he’d pare down the grand conspiracy theories that are forever getting in the way of his undeniable talent for tension. •••½

IN CINEMAS NOW

This article was first published in the February 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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