A while back I wrote that I was excited for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest phase of his career. Some people thought that perhaps the film that filled me with such excitement, The Visit, might have been a one off. I pointed to his very good show on Fox, Wayward Pines, and to the fact that he’s been tapped to bring back Tales from the Crypt to network television. Shyamalan’s latest film continues this trend of excellence and re-affirms my previous thoughts about his career. He is back and he is at the top of his game with another batshit crazy gem.
Split —which opened Friday—is showcase of talent. Shyamalan is showcasing his masterclass film making abilities. Strong framing, slow camera movements and a solid use of his traditionally muted color palate help to turn this into tight and claustrophobic feature designed ramp up the tension and create anxiety in the viewer. In short, Shyamalan crafted a thriller that takes viewers on a strange and terrifying journey. The plot is simple, on the surface at least (I may be reading way too much into the film, please see the next article I post for more on that), a man with multiple personalities kidnaps a gaggle of teenage girls from a mall parking lot and holds them hostage as offerings to something known as the Beast. They have to find a way out of the situation before the Beast shows up to consume them all. That’s all the film is, seriously. And from that simple premise, Shyamalan delivers us a tight, almost claustrophobic character study. We get to know the girls (trigger warning: there is a sad and disturbing subplot of abuse that is used to allow us to understand the headspace of our main heroine. It goes to some very dark places and is rather uncomfortable to watch), we get to understand the personalities at play and we get to meet the doctor who serves as a caretaker to these personalities. As things spiral out of control, we come to like all of the characters here and I personally left the theater conflicted. I knew I should hate the monstrous character that McAvoy played but between his performance and Shyamalan’s plotting and directing, I felt sorry for him and at times I even found myself rooting for him—just a little though, and definitely not for all of his personalities.
I’ll let that sentence serve as a segue into what I really came here to say, James McAvoy is—to my mind—one of the very best actors working today. I did not come in to the screening with that opinion. I left with it. His performance in this film is nothing short of Oscar-worthy. He won’t get a nod, obviously, but you should check out this film to see what amazing chops this guy has. He is incredible and he steals every scene he is in. His performance is one of utmost subtlety and —simultaneously—incredible soul searing intensity. Each person he is playing is completely different from the next, and there are 23 separate personalities for him to choose from. It’s incredible. It’s insane. It’s all of those things at once and in the hands of a less capable actor it would be absurd. McAvoy however is a next level actor and does not just manage the role, he completely owns it. It’s a performance that needs to be seen—multiple times I think—to believe.