Film Fangirl: James McAvoy perfectly captures 23 personalities in ‘Split’

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Most of us struggle with aspects of our personality at one point or another. How about having 23 of them?

Split,” written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, introduces us to Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and has 23 distinct personalities living in his head. When two of his unstable personalities take control, he kidnaps three teenage girls from a mall parking lot. The girls must work together to try to escape from Crumb, who has a 24th personality emerging known only as the beast.

Following the success of “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs” and possibly “The Village,” Director M. Night Shyamalan’s box office returns and audience appeal have steadily declined to the point that most people I know tend to recoil or grimace at the mere mention of his name. Between “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” it seemed that Shyamalan could never return to his former glory.

But after a small hit with 2015’s “The Visit,” I’m relieved to say Shyamalan is back with a fantastic return to form. This film is thrilling and incredibly suspenseful — especially its third act — to the point of hearing a pin drop in my theater.

James McAvoy turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as Crumb. He captures each of the personalities he portrays so completely that each of them feels like a different person, despite being played by the same actor. Between tour de force work in “Atonement,” the “X-Men” series and now “Split,” I’m beginning to believe McAvoy can do no wrong.

Anya Taylor-Joy is also at home here as Casey Cooke, one of the three kidnapped girls with a horrible backstory that slowly emerges in bits and pieces over the course of the film. Taylor-Joy was absolutely arresting in 2015’s indie horror hit “The Witch,” and it’s wonderful to see her continue to shine. She is clearly one of the most talented young actresses working in Hollywood today, and I’m sure the future will be bright for her.

My only real criticism of this film lies with the two other girls, Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). While each actress does relatively well with the material she’s given, neither character is as well fleshed out as Casey. We’re given no backstory, no reason to care. They essentially fall into the trope of the “popular girl,” which doesn’t allow the audience to relate to them.

Another gripe of mine actually has nothing to do with the film but with the audience with whom I saw it. While moments of “Split” are certainly very funny particularly moments with Crumb’s 9-year-old personality Hedwig there was a lot of inappropriate audience laughter. They were not laughing at something funny; they were laughing at the portrayal of personalities and, to take it one step further, at mental illness itself. It was disturbing to hear laughter toward an accurate representation of horrific mental illness as though someone suffering from such a thing is somehow amusing. I have a schizophrenic brother who hears voices. Is that funny?

Laughter can often be an uncomfortable reaction, but I would ask those who watch this film to ask themselves why they’re laughing. Is something funny happening on screen? Or is mental illness too much for us to see and seek to understand rather than ridicule?

Perhaps everyone should see “Split” to ask himself or herself these questions.

Grade: A-