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split-mcavoy-turtleneck

via slashfilm.com

“Split” is M. Night Shyamalan’s latest attempt to restore his reputation after a string of awful releases, and whilst it’s far from perfect I thought it was an interesting cinematic experience. It’s a visually entertaining film which I feel will appeal to mainstream audiences, boasting strong performances from James McAvoy (“Trance”) and Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”), and great cinematography from Mike Gioulakis (“It Follows”).

What makes this movie interesting, over and above the intricacies of McAvoy’s performance, is that whilst this is Shyamalan’s film (as evidenced by the trademark twist at the end) it often feels as though Shyamalan is the one person holding it back. This is a harsh statement to make because he can’t be to blame for all of the issues that appear in the film, but I feel that the weakest aspects of the movie are the writing and direction – the two aspects which Shyamalan should’ve been most involved in.

The dialogue often verges on expository rather than natural, which in this case clearly stems from the writing rather than the delivery of the actors. The story also lacks believability, and whilst the film is fun to watch there isn’t a lot going on which ultimately makes the movie quite predictable. Still, the twist at the end goes some way towards making up for the predictability of the rest of the movie, and for someone like me who is familiar with the rest of Shyamalan’s work it improved the experience significantly.

The saviour of the film is McAvoy, who gives one of the best performances of his career in a role which could’ve been career-ending. His performance has just the right balance of commitment, eccentricity, and realism to make the character feel larger-than-life without also making him cartoonish. To be fair to the writing he is given something to work with on this front, because Kevin (McAvoy) has the chance to interact with characters outside of his natural habitat, which allows McAvoy to portray vulnerability and make the character sympathetic. This is necessary given that Kevin’s split personalities are the product of a troubled childhood, as making the character a monster would’ve taken away from a story which is at its heart about coping with abuse. Even though the psychological exploration in the film is undoubtedly limited it’s crucial that it’s there in order to make the clichéd story worthwhile, so Shyamalan at least deserves credit for this.

The changes that McAvoy makes when switching between personalities in this film gives each one of them their own distinct feel, but these changes are subtle for the most part. He does make major changes in order to distinguish between personalities, such as changing the pitch and tone of his voice, but he also changes his mannerisms, making psychical changes on top of those which are done to his wardrobe. For example, when he’s portraying Hedwig, (a young boy who takes a liking to Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy)), he comes across as shy and introverted, whereas when he’s playing Patricia he’s upright and composed which makes her seem as though she’s in charge. The way that these characters come across as having their own unique personalities is a direct result of the alterations that McAvoy makes to his posture and his movements when he’s playing them, which is why his performance deserves to be praised. Without McAvoy “Split” simply wouldn’t have worked, and we could’ve ended up with another disastrous Shyamalan movie along the lines of “After Earth” and “The Happening”.

Anya Taylor-Joy also deserves credit for her performance, as although Casey is less developed than Kevin she is likeable throughout. As an actress Taylor-Joy is able to be expressive without overacting, and in this film she portrays a sense of acceptance whilst also undercutting this with an aggressive self-assurance, which in turn gives off the impression that she’s a worthy match for Kevin even though she’s diminutive in stature. Casey is a deceptively well-realised character, and this is largely down to Joy’s emotive but restrained performance.

It’s a shame then that the supporting cast don’t seem to understand their characters or the situations that they find themselves in. The only member of the supporting cast who plays a meaningful part in the film is Betty Buckley in the role of Dr. Fletcher – Kevin’s psychiatrist – but again I don’t think that her performance is particularly good. She isn’t terrible, but her performance is basically an imitation of other performances she’s seen on film. It was more forgettable than it was insulting, but when she was on screen I found myself acutely aware that I was in a movie theatre staring at a screen.

Overall, “Split” is an entertaining but limited film. It’s elevated by the lead performances of James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy, as well as its stellar cinematography, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights that it aspires to. I would recommend it and I think it has the potential to make Shyamalan relevant again, but it’s still lacking in a number of important areas.

6.5/10

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