Film: McAvoy rescues a Shyamalan schlockfest

Spilt (15, 117 mins, ★★★)

M Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village) has a reputation both for expertly disturbing his audiences and for erratic performances at the box-office; his latest film is being hailed as a return to form. Its star is James McAvoy, who plays a character, Kevin, with 23 personalities and another one on the way. Split seems too binary a title: it really should be Splintered.

The plot is solid B-movie schlock, cranked up by Shyamalan’s undoubted talent for suspense. When the class oddball, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), accepts a ride home with two popular teenage girls, Claire and Marcia (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), a shaven-headed stranger pepper-sprays Claire’s dad and slides into the driving seat. The terrified girls are taken to a fortified room, where they come to realise that their captor is one person but many characters: chiefly Dennis, a meticulous, controlling man, Patricia, a sleekly sinister woman, and a nervy nine-year-old boy called Hedwig. These are but a few of the personalities contained within Kevin, but the fact that this trio appears to be dominant is worrisome. As only Casey – already a veteran of trauma – seems to realise, the key to escape is persuading the right character to help them.

Kevin regularly sees a kindly, older therapist, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), an authority on dissociative personality disorder who believes that the illness may enable its sufferers to access extraordinary powers. When Kevin visits, he talks to her mainly in the persona of Barry, a friendly, camp fashion designer, who has been making an unusual number of appointments while remaining cagey about what is troubling him.

A large element of Split belongs to the prurient sub-genre that enjoys trapping nubile, frightened teenage girls in enclosed spaces. Slowly the film deepens into a chaotic fable about surviving damage, but it is mainly rescued by the stellar performance of McAvoy, perpetually shifting out of one character and into another. Indeed, the most unsettling moments arrive not in the hectic horrors of the girls’ makeshift prison, but in the cosy chats in the therapist’s apartment, when Barry briefly seems to melt away and we can glimpse an altogether tougher, more ruthless character staring out from behind McAvoy’s eyes.