Split is probably the least “twisty” of all of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. The movie focuses on James McAvoy’s Kendall Crumb, who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Early on, he kidnaps three teenage girls and, to escape, the girls attempt to manipulate Crumb’s twenty-three different personalities. I know, it should be ridiculous. A movie pushing tired mental health cliches and relying on the audience giggling at a man in a dress or man acting like a child shouldn’t work. But it does, thanks to McAvoy. If you watch this movie hoping for a traditional Shyamalan twist, you are going to be disappointed. The movie’s true twist is right in front of you the whole time: James McAvoy is apparently a talented, captivating actor who can carry an entire movie on his shoulders. It begs the question: why has he been wasting his time as Professor X?
As preposterous as the previews make the whole movie seem, McAvoy’s performance really sells the whole thing. You come out of this movie wondering what he’s been doing wasting his time as the terminally dull Professor X. In this movie, he’s dynamic and endlessly enthralling. He takes a character that could be utterly ridiculous and makes him fascinatingly scary. I didn’t know McAvoy could be frightening or intimidating, but here he delivers those performances before turning into characters with childlike vulnerability or stern authority. He’s so nuanced, you can even tell when one persona is masquerading as another. In the hands of any other actor, this performance (and thus this whole movie) could be almost comically bad, like MST3K bad. But it isn’t. This whole movie is such a high-wire act that somehow succeeds due to McAvoy’s awesome acting.
Compare his performance in this movie to every single performance he’s been tasked to give as Professor X. When McAvoy was first announced as Professor X, I was assuming we’d see a more dynamic hero than the excellent Patrick Stewart version of the character. But, across three movies, Professor X has remained as inert as ever. He rarely engages in heroic action and, instead, tends to encourage other mutants to either act more heroically or less destructively. He is frequently upstaged by more interesting mutants like Mystique or Quicksilver. He continues to be frequently kidnapped and taken out of the action. And his mutant power is repeatedly depicted by his touching his finger to his forehead and squinting, which is somehow even less interesting than it sounds.
While I have a pretty negative view of the recent Xmen movies, I have some complaints about Split as well. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a controversial disorder and the frequecy of DID’s depictions in movies and TV shows is almost inversely proportional to its acceptance among mental health practitioners. More generally, I’m tired of movies depicting tired stereotypes that stigmatize those with mental health issues. And, to be even more blunt, this is not a better movie than Shyamalan’s earliest efforts or even the more recent The Visit (or the first season of Wayward Pines). What Split is, though, is an essential reminder to us that James McAvoy is a surprisingly good actor who has given enough of his time to the floundering Xmen franchise. Once you see Split, you’ll hope he’s ready to trade in Professor X for whatever Shyamalan might offer him next.