James McAvoy is superb as a guy who has multiple personalities in “Split.” (Courtesy Universal Pictures)

James McAvoy is superb as a guy who has multiple personalities in “Split.” (Courtesy Universal Pictures)

James McAvoy stupendous as many men in ‘Split’

The name M. Night Shyamalan has always been synonymous with one thing: twist. Still, as viewers wonder what he’ll do, the power of what’s on screen can get diminished, particularly when the filmmaking and performances are 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 sinks his teeth into the role of a troubled young man who developed dissociative identity disorder as a coping mechanism to deal with an 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.

McAvoy is great, showing 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.

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,” the classic psychological horror thriller in which she had a similar role.

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, 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 formulas for this genre. It’s tiresome to see yet another movie where yet more young women are stripped and locked in a basement.

Still, Shyamalan demonstrates a mastery over the form of the mean and lean psycho-thriller, aided in no small party by the lead performances and smooth-yet-unsettling work by cinematographer Michael Gioulakis. The camera swaps character point-of-view rapidly, inhabiting both victim and kidnapper, watcher and watched.

— Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service

three stars
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Written and directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Rated PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutesAnya Taylor-JoyBetty BuckleyJames McAvoyM. Night ShyamalanMovies and TVSplit

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