Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) might be looked upon by her teenage peers as a black sheep, but she’s got nothing on the man that she and her unwilling friends are about to be abducted by; James McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb, aka Dennis, aka Patricia, aka Hedwig…etc. Kevin suffers from dissociative identity disorder, a condition that splits his personality into twenty-three completely separate people, with a twenty-fourth bubbling just under the surface, each physically changing the makeup of his body. One moment he might become a calculated woman with an eye for manipulation, the next a small child with creepy tendencies. Unfortunately for Casey and her two fellow hostages, most of the identities have some horrific things in mind for them.
The fantastic McAvoy is crucial here. With every new personality that comes to the forefront he contorts himself, convincingly embodying the changes through his mannerisms, body language, facial ticks and shifts in his voice. It’s fascinating to watch his evolution of the character, particularly as the most dangerous inhabitants take control of Kevin, at times under the disguise of his more trusted identities. It’s a top-notch performance, comedic and terrifying in equal parts.
Whilst normally I like to avoid spoilers in my reviews, for Split, I’m making an exception because, well, there’s much to be discussed. The short, spoiler-free verdict is that it’s pretty darned great. Intense, twisted, funny and scary (occasionally all at once), it’s not perfect, but it is writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s best film since Unbreakable (2000), and it might just be James McAvoy’s best work full stop, which all things considered isn’t too shabby in the slightest. Go watch!
For those that have already seen the film, (or those that don’t like surprises), let’s go deep into the dark depths of spoiler territory. Beyond McAvoy rocking the turtleneck below I’m going all in discussing the film’s endgame, so if you don’t want to discover any more of its secrets, look away after the jump!
So there I was, halfway through devising an article in my head about just how perfectly Split links to Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, it serving as an effective expansion of the ideas put forward in the 2000 film, when all of a sudden Bruce Willis pops up to reprise his role as David Dunn – as in his character from Unbreakable – and everything clicked into place. Samuel L. Jackson’s villainous Mr. Glass exists in Kevin’s world, as does Willis’s “superhero” David Dunn. Welcome to the Shyamalan Cinematic Universe!
The reveal is surprising, yes, but it’s not a twist in the conventional sense. Nor in the way that Shyamalan has become (in)famous for over the years. I’m reluctant to even call it a twist at all, as for me it just felt like a confirmation of what I had already begun to suspect, a truth not hidden by the film, just scattered throughout, waiting to be pieced together. The groundwork is laid, the signposts are placed, and the seeds are planted through Kevin’s interactions with his psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), her theories echoing those hypothesised by Mr. Glass before her. Extraordinary humans exist, people with the power to do good and evil. Admittedly I did hear a handful of confused moviegoers come the end questioning why Brucey was there suddenly, so it clearly doesn’t have the same impact on those less familiar with Unbreakable, but for those that are, it’s entirely awesome.
Stylistically this is traditional Shyamalan in a lot of respects, with many of his directorial traits making a return; the unusual camera angles, a cameo from the man himself (kept blissfully short, unlike his excessive appearance in Lady In The Water), an autumnal Philadelphia setting, and a clever use of colour, used to distinguish between the different sides of Kevin. Thematically though this treads on darker ground than he’s touched upon before, particularly when it comes to Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey, a character with a tragic past and hidden depth. Though her layers are unveiled as the story progresses, the same can’t be said of her counterparts Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), who are about as generic as they get. You can’t win them all, I suppose.
But in spite of how swimmingly the film seems to be zipping by, it does threaten to go off the rails somewhat towards the climax…around the stage where McAvoy literally starts climbing up the walls. Seriously, it’s completely nutty. Yet, mercifully it redeems itself with a fitting conclusion to Kevin’s journey, and one hell of a reveal. Much like last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, it’s a sneaky sequel that takes the franchise in an unexpected direction. One that as someone who’s been hoping for an Unbreakable sequel for many years, I found rather satisfying indeed.
Rating (out of 5):