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Split movie review: M Night Shyamalan, James McAvoy deliver a class act

Split movie review: The movie marks a return to firmer ground for writer-director M Night Shyamalan and his supernatural/psychological thrillers, and the credit for it goes to James McAvoy.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi | February 23, 2017 6:07:42 pm
split-movie-review-759 Split movie review: James McAvoy evokes menace, desire, love, respect, pity, and fear.

Split movie director: M Night Shyamalan
Split movie cast: James McAvoy, Betty Buckley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Split movie rating: 2.5

M Night Shyamalan’s trademark twist here is more of a tool, and his treatment of three kidnapped teenage girls who are made to remove their clothes, not too much but not too little either, is only just short of exploitative. However, if Split marks a return to firmer ground for writer-director Shyamalan and his supernatural/psychological thrillers, the credit goes to McAvoy. He is Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig/Barry/Jade etc etc, going up to 23 personalities, as the film repeatedly tells us. Split never gets anywhere close to a glimpse of all 23, but McAvoy at least seems capable of holding them — and, yes, one more; the film’s big reveal — all in.

We meet Dennis first, as Split opens to a creepy beginning where a birthday party finds a strange girl called Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) sitting alone and silent. The father of the birthday girl, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), offers to drop Casey home. As he is putting the gifts into the trunk of his car, inside which wait Claire, Casey and a third girl, Marcia (Jessica Sula), a man approaches him and there is a sound. Unseen by the girls, Dennis enters and takes the wheel.

split-movie-stills-2 A still from the movie Split.

Dennis is just one of the many personalities of Kevin Wendell Crumb, as we and the girls soon discover, adding to their and our horror and uncertainty. However, rather than focus on what is a nightmare in itself, of three girls locked in the basement by a deranged man with an obsession for cleanliness — the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane comes to mind — Split keeps turning to long sessions of Kevin, now as the gay fashionista Barry, with his counsellor, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley).

Dr. Fletcher is the outside observer in this story, and good and wise as Buckley is and looks, she appears to be around just so to spell out Kevin’s condition for us. And to nudge us towards thinking of his dissociative identity disorder (or DID) in terms of “unleashing the mind’s true potential”, and “an ultimate doorway to things unknown… the supernatural”.

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There is a story to how Kevin got here, and it leads back to childhood abuse. There is a story to how Casey got here, and it leads back to childhood abuse too. Both are hinted, never explored, and in Casey’s case recounted in an almost dreamy extended sequence of a hunting expedition, and seem too much of a plot contrivance. The talk of “sacred food”, “evolution”, “sentient beings”, “suffering making one more complete”, and “being banned from light”, may be too much highfalutin after all.

That is also because Casey’s unnatural stillness, a fact the film is seeking to draw our eyes to, seems as much a result of Taylor-Joy’s incompetence in portraying the many horrors she is facing. The other two girls are almost as inert, but have lesser to do.

As long as McAvoy is on screen though, in different voices, clothes, stature, posture, smiles, and even gaze, Split needs little else. He evokes menace, desire, love, respect, pity, and fear. And not necessarily in that order.

The twist in the end, if one can call it that, is ultimately worthwhile for acknowledging this class act.

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