"Split" is a compelling argument for going back to basics

At Split’s climax, James McAvoy’s Kevin approaches Casey, a girl that one of his multiple personalities kidnapped. He’s confused, scared, identities arguing and fighting for control. McAvoy had been doing a good job of keeping the character’s separate, having different mannerisms for each of the four or five identities we meet.

Up until that moment, it’s easy to dismiss it as a trick. The characters are distinct: an effeminate designer, a child, a stern matron, a steely-eyed brute. Give a good actor enough time, schedule the shooting around the various personas, and he can get into character. Editing enhances their skill.

But there, for a glorious few seconds, there are no cuts whatsoever. McAvoy shambles towards her, crying, speaking in different voices. His face becomes a protean thing as several people flash across his features, expressions melting and re-forming, wrestling control from the previous one, pushing the others down, every shift done without a single pause.

It makes an otherwise muddled movie worth it.

The Sixth Sense was M. Night Shyamalan’s third movie, but it wasn’t until then that he seemed to have found his voice. He could have stayed in the same genre, do another ghost story, but instead he took the same tools and crafted Unbreakable, a love letter to comics and those who see themselves in them.

The streak ended there.

Signs was heavy on atmosphere and light on sense. The Village was more of the same. The least said about the movies that came after, the better. Every time he added bigger names to the cast, more budget, a more bombastic part for himself. It was like a rock band that, once unable to re-capture the spirit of their sophomore album, decide they’re just going to play louder.

I skipped The Visit, which seemed to be a return to trying smaller, more focused efforts. A couple people led me to try Split, which if nothing else promised to be his Raising Cain — a hammy piece of overacting and contrived situations.

It worked.

In doing so, it proved an adage I keep repeating to myself: when in doubt, go smaller.

Being small makes you nimble. Being small allows you to take risks. Being small allows a single, stellar piece to shine so bright that they envelop the entire endeavor.

That’s McAvoy here. He’s so spectacular that I have no qualms recommending it, just so you can see him play at being all these people at the same time. He, by himself, can carry the whole thing, even through the lines and situations and moments that Shyamalan forcibly adopted from other films. He is a walking human argument for trusting your entire movie to a single actor.

Until the last scene, at least, where Shyamalan points at franchise building.

Because who wouldn’t want yet another overwrought cinematic universe?

Oh well. The back-to-basics comeback was good while it lasted.

Originally published at filmsnark.tumblr.com.

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