Through the ups and downs of his career, the name M. Night Shyamalan has always been synonymous with one thing: twist. While watching his films, it’s easy to spend more time wondering if he will, if he won’t and how he’ll twist, and that can take away the power of what’s actually on screen. Which is a shame when the filmmaking and performances are particularly exceptional. In the multiple-personality psycho-thriller “Split,” Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy shine as predator and prey who understand each other far more than they know.
As Kevin/Barry/Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig/Orwell/Jade, McAvoy ferociously sinks his teeth into the role of a troubled young man who developed dissociative identity disorder as a coping mechanism to deal with a turbulent, abusive childhood. He kept his 23 personalities in control with the help of an understanding therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but the darker proclivities have taken over, and he kidnaps three young girls to satisfy those urges.
While McAvoy is known for his dramatic roles, and as the young Charles Xavier in the “X-Men” franchise, he’s delightful when let off the leash and allowed to show off his loud, campy, unhinged side. While this performance could have descended into a “James McAvoy Does Accents” YouTube video of sorts, he’s far too skilled as an actor for that. Each of his characters has unique gestures and facial physicality, and McAvoy slides seamlessly from one to another in single takes.
Dr. Fletcher has gained her patient’s trust by believing in the autonomy of each persona, and suggesting that his condition could reveal a higher evolution of humanity, positioning his mental disorder as almost supernatural powers. Buckley is wonderful, and casting her is genius — a nod to “Carrie,” another psychological horror thriller about a victim who found a way to turn plight into power, in which Buckley had a similar role.
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Kevin (or is it Dennis?) meets his match in Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a teen who accidentally happens to be with intended victims Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) at the time of the kidnapping. She’s thoughtful, quiet and composed, thinking rather than acting impulsively out of their predicament, drawing on lessons learned from hunting trips with her father and uncle.
While Kevin’s disorder could indicate a higher evolution, he has the basest of instincts — an appetite for nubile young women isn’t exactly original. He’s a fascinating character, but Shyamalan retreats to the tried-and-true formulas for this genre. It’s tiresome to see yet another movie where yet more young women are stripped and locked in a basement.
Despite this, Shyamalan demonstrates a mastery over the form of the mean and lean psycho-thriller, aided in no small party by the performances of McAvoy, Taylor-Joy and Buckley, and smooth-yet-unsettling camera work by cinematographer Michael Gioulakis. The camera swaps character point-of-view rapidly, inhabiting both victim and kidnapper, watcher and watched. As the tension ratchets up, odd and off-putting camera angles and extreme close-ups emulate the cracks in reality.
Shyamalan brings victim and victimizer together to make a powerful (if a bit facile) statement about drawing power from pain, turning trauma into strength. That concept is the subtext of the horror genre, and Shyamalan smartly makes it manifest as the driving message of “Split.”
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan.
Running time: 1:57.
Rated: PG-13, for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.