It's Been Five Years Since James McAvoy's Incredible Performance In Split
Five years ago today, James McAvoy became The Horde in Split. 'Let him show the world how powerful we can be.'
M. Night Shyamalan's scattershot filmography took a dip in the years following The Village. The Happening is among the worst movies ever made, The Last Airbender felt like a slap in the face of television legend, and After Earth was rightly dubbed a 'big-screen vanity project' for its father-son stars.
Then, in 2017, he returned to form with Split, a gonzo horror-thriller with a warped wit and electrifying central performance from McAvoy. It's a cardinal sin his work wasn't rewarded with an Oscar nomination, but awards are negligible when an artist's work is truly great. 'The broken are the more evolved,' after all. 'Rejoice.'
The Scot plays Kevin Wendell Crumb, whose past trauma led to the evolution of 23 different personalities to 'protect' him. This includes Barry, a fashionably-conscious wannabe designer; Dennis, an OCD-strained, sexually frustrated man; Patricia, an disarmingly warm mother figure with posture to die for; and Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy who loves to play and dance next to his 'window'.
He kidnaps three young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, whose steely attitude has its own harrowing reason, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), giving them few details about their fate other than being 'sacred food'. We soon learn about 'The Beast', an impending 24th, superhuman personality.
Split is at its best when it revels in McAvoy's brute-force charisma; with three personalities mostly basking in the 'light', it's a fairly seamless triple-handed character study, wringing chills from every grimace, grin and growl, as well as the occasional laugh from Hedwig parroting 'etcetera'.
Yet, even as Shyamalan skips past the suspenseful persona-hopping for something more high-concept and daft, the star has our sympathies. The portrayal of dissociative identity disorder has aged like milk, but in this uniquely fantastical setting, it's remarkable how easily we still fear for a man who, deep down, knows his brain is in disarray. 'What did I do?' he asks with a knowing, heartbreaking quiver.
Ultimately, it's the Jekyll and Hyde schtick ramped up to 11; so basically, a dream come true for any actor. 'There was the opportunity to flex many muscles and employ all the dexterity you can muster,' McAvoy earlier told The Guardian.
'Sometimes you throw yourself in at the deep end and it just doesn’t work, and it’s a nightmare. But the great thing about being an actor is that even if it’s terrible it’s over in two or three months and you move on to the next thing. So what’s the harm in throwing yourself in there? It’s just your reputation.'
Speaking to Empire, Shyamalan said he believes McAvoy is 'the most courageous actor... I’m not sure his peers that are at his level of acting would have been as courageous. He almost doesn’t have a fear button'.
The Oscars come and go, and McAvoy has yet to bag a statuette. The spectacle of Split needs no awards affirmation; it's one of the definitive performances of the 21st century.
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