Anya Taylor-Joy film

SPLIT Review: ‘Rejoice,’ It’s 2017’s First Good Movie

Monday, January 23, 2017 Rob Samuelson

When Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) is petrified, she remains still. While doom stares at her from point-blank range, tears stream down her face slowly -- it’s almost as if she can control the pace with which they crawl down the curve of her cheeks. She is a master of responding to trauma. She’s been doing it all her life. When a mentally disturbed man with two dozen too many personalities (James McAvoy) kidnaps her and a couple of her acquaintances in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, Split, Casey is equipped to search for her moment, acquire every shred of information she needs to survive, and hopefully find a way to escape with her newfound friends from their underground hell.

Photo credit: Split/Facebook

Shyamalan, who also wrote the script, shoots his trio of young actresses (Haley Lu Richardson plays Claire and Jessica Sula plays Marcia, the two unfortunate souls trapped with Casey) in an intense, controlled close-up during times of intense stress. The sound mix by Tod A. Maitland and David J. Schwartz dulls the sound of external noises to focus on the actresses’ quick gasps and the subtle, wet sounds their mouths make when their lips part in that brief moment before a scream can escape. The effect this creates is viscerally intimate. Their fear becomes your fear.

That empathy comes not because Shyamalan gives a deep background on each girl. The movie wastes no time in getting to its kidnapping and escape scenario, spending only a few minutes at the beginning setting up the fact that Claire was bound by social pressure to invite antisocial outcast Casey to her birthday party. Claire and Marcia don’t know what to do with the ride-less Casey at the end of the party, so they hop in Claire’s dad’s car together to give Casey a lift -- that’s when Dennis (James McAvoy) strikes. Those few minutes are made to feel like so much more because Shyamalan puts you in these girls’ places with technical mastery to engage all of your senses.

To get this far into a review of Split without heaping praise on McAvoy’s performance as Dennis and Patricia and Hedwig and Kevin and Barry and Orwell and Jade and most of all, The Beast (he’s on the move), feels wrong. The time has come to discuss the many talents of one Mr. McAvoy. The personalities who inhabit a single man’s headspace (Kevin is the original person, but he hardly ever gets a chance to come “into the light,” to take control of the body, in other words) are distinct. They are jealous of those in the light, and McAvoy embodies the transformations with a monstrous kind of grace -- you can see how much pain every personality shift causes this man. Whenever someone new takes over, McAvoy’s body changes dramatically. As Dennis, the psychopathic one who took the girls, McAvoy is coiled like a spring, every muscle knotted and stiff -- he is strict and requires a perfect routine. But as 9-year-old Hedwig, McAvoy is loosey-goosey and clumsy, often crouched down and inattentive to those around him. Patricia’s a prim and proper lady of wealth who enjoys spouting fun facts. And The Beast, well, look out. McAvoy looks like he put on about 20 pounds of muscle for The Beast, who is powerful enough to scale walls simply by grabbing hold of the tiny imperfections in the wall with his fingers.

But McAvoy’s showy performance -- it couldn’t be done any other way -- wouldn’t work without the internalized terror of Taylor-Joy’s work. The contrast between these two personalities is where Split becomes an effective piece of cinema rather than a simple stylistic exercise. McAvoy’s various characters tell about a prophecy, that The Beast requires a sacrifice of purity (teen girls are the go-to “purity” choice for psychos everywhere), but Casey’s not pure. She has been harmed by the world and those closest to her. Claire and Marcia have not. They’ve grown up lucky, with middle-class families who love them. They’re prepared for college and the real world, not combat and when “things get real.” Casey’s scars and ability to remain calm, ask questions, and play various personalities against each other will lead to salvation. But for whom?

If Shyamalan had stopped there, he might have crafted a perfect perpetual tension machine. Split lets the wind out of its sails a little bit when it works just a little too hard to explain what troubles McAvoy’s characters’ minds via a psychiatrist named Dr. Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley. Fletcher’s theories, which she espouses via a Skype call to a conference of psychoanalysts, begin to feel a little too neat and extravagant at the same time. There’s a distancing effect to Fletcher’s suggestion that multiple personalities may be the next step in human evolution and that they may be the explanation for supernatural occurrences and other things that go bump in the night. This removes some of the elemental horror of what Kevin, et al, become, and it only serves to feed a last-second twist that doesn’t quite mean anything to the two hours of movie that came before it.

But if you just focus on Casey’s eyes and the resolve she displays alongside those impossibly slow-moving tears, Split comes back into focus.  

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Available in theaters now

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