Split: Film Review
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Despite being burned by audiences who spurned his ongoing obsessions with twist endings, director M Night Shyamalan returns to his "classic" mode with this reasonably taut psychological thriller that's anchored by two stunning lead turns.
Abducted by James McAvoy's character and imprisoned underground (shades of potboiler thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane in more thematic ways than one), a trio of girls (The Witch star Taylor-Joy, Edge of Seventeen's Richardson and Skins actress Sula) try desperately to escape.
But it turns out that McAvoy's kidnapper is just one of 23 personalities trapped within his body, each acting on the machinations of the other but all serving a greater purpose - the coming of The Beast....
Less about the practicalities of a siege mentality and more about the mysterious journey and subsequent story, Shyamalan's new film is very much a return to form that's greatly enhanced by Taylor-Joy and McAvoy.
While Taylor-Joy's stoically passive and yet determined outsider Casey seizes the intellectual initiative of the situation and tries to bond with her captors, it's McAvoy's turn as the incarcerator that really stands out.
Easily flipping between the many personalities with the subtlest of touches and slightest nuancing of facial expressions, McAvoy's ferocious and fluid acting out of multiple personalities shifts Split away from feeling like a film that stigmatises mental illness and scoffs at its subject for cheap laughs.
From a slight re-arranging of his reactions or an altering of facial features to the use of accents makes his characters seem both distinct and unnerving as the claustrophobic atmosphere plays out.
Make no mistake, Split is McAvoy's film from start to finish.
Though he's well-supported by the impassive Taylor-Joy who conveys as much with a simple look as she managed during The VVitch.
Perhaps less successful are some of the other elements of the narrative.
At times, Shyamalan seems to lose focus on juggling the puzzle pieces in the air and more focussed on heading toward the end game. Certainly, a back story feels extraneous and using a therapist to convey medical exposition slows Split in the middle part.
And at times, some of the dialogue feels forced and unnatural. Equally, a final hurdle run into full horror territory removes Split of some of its relative freshness and more macabre edges, sullying the work done to get to this point.
Granted, it's not a Shyamalan film without an audacious final narrative gamble and there'll be plenty of debate once the curtain goes up, but to say more is to rob you of the experience.
Ultimately, Split avoids cliches and a large degree of risibility thanks to its superb two leads, imbuing what transpires with an emotional edge that's as tense and compelling as it is uncomfortable and suspenseful, and ensuring once again that Shyamalan has returned to a character piece and form that's not been witnessed since the denouement of The Sixth Sense.