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James McAvoy’s Nine-Character Acting in ‘Split’ Deserves Your Love

McAvoy’s been playing multiple roles at once forever — whether in ‘Split’ or ‘Atonement’

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

Some spoilers about Split contained herein. Not many — almost none, actually — but maybe don’t read this if you haven’t seen Split yet.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard that Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s newest brain-contorting psychological thriller, starring James McAvoy, is not bad, unlike most of Shyamalan’s recent efforts. In fact, it’s quite good — even great at times, thanks to McAvoy. But before we get to that, an anecdote:

One summer, between eighth and ninth grades, my parents sent me to this special “arts camp” that, come to think of it, was actually just an ornate way of saying “more school.” We chose four courses from a list of about 10, and one of the courses I chose was Dramatic Theatre. The final exam (“talent showcase”) was a skit I did with a classmate. The script read like a conversation between the two of us on a first date, weighing our likes and dislikes, our quirks and pet peeves, being coy about our wants, hinting at our fears, eventually catapulting into things that would kill an actual first date, like what to name our children and where they’d go to college. However, every minute or so, our counselor would chime a wine glass with a fork, and we’d have to improvise — inflate our gestures, raise our voices to shouts, dampen them to whispers, summon tears (which would guarantee top marks) if we could. The goal was to present several distinct versions of the same person over the course of a single conversation. I started to shut down with mental fatigue after doing it for 10 measly minutes. It was fucking hard.

I thought about that as the credits rolled on Split, wherein James McAvoy is recognized for playing nine different characters. Except it’s more complicated than that, because within McAvoy’s Kevin, who has some fictitious form of dissociative identity disorder that Shyamalan mostly made up, there are 23 personalities that are full, separate people. People who have their own tics, interests, and body chemistry, as we find out. It’s an impossibly dissonant role, and McAvoy absolutely knocks it out of the park.

Among his identities: Dennis, the self-loathing neat freak who physically can’t stomach a finger smudge on a mirror; Patricia, who’s basically a more deranged Dolores Umbridge; and Hedwig, who’s 9 years old, wakes up in a new world every day, and loves dancing to Kanye West. There’s also Jade, who’s both nurturing and basic as well as a Type I diabetic; Orwell, who has to invoke the Franco-Prussian War to arrive at the conclusion that it’s bad to let people walk over you; and Barry, a charismatic and fabulous fashion designer who hates snoods. One or two at a time, Kevin’s personalities can buoy themselves to the surface, or “take the light.” With the exception of a few costume changes, McAvoy does the bulk of the heavy lifting by changing the way he carries himself: Dennis lumbers, Hedwig slouches, Patricia waltzes gracefully. And each darts back and forth between anger and confusion and determination with frightening agility, like that time Serena Williams went from the brink of tears to focused in five seconds flat, but every time. That, right there, is something James McAvoy does better than most of your favorite actors and with ease — or at least it looks easy. Languishing on every word, pinching every last bit of emotion out of it, and balancing several of those emotions on the bridge of his prodigious nose at the same time.

It almost sounds like an oxymoron: James McAvoy is incredible in the campy, twisty Split. But there are any number of examples of this throughout McAvoy’s career — of him working some real multivalent magic in standard genre fare. He’s done this before, and well.

In Welcome to the Punch, a 2013 action thriller about a detective, Max Lewinsky, who gets a second chance at catching a criminal that not only eluded but embarrassed him, McAvoy plays a good-looking, unsophisticated guy who won’t allow himself to feel love. He’s compelled to chase a risky and potentially life-threatening lead, but friend and colleague Sarah catches him and tries to pull him back from the proverbial ledge. In that moment he’s full of fury and then shame that turns into desperation and lands on what seems like relief. He misreads Sarah’s compassion and goes in for a kiss, catches another painful curve, and pulls back in frustration that quickly sublimates to fury, again. There’s a similar scene in Split where Dennis (one of Kevin’s identities), disguised as Barry (another one), drops his ruse during a session with his therapist: at once feeling indignant, confident in the idea that he’s the only one who can truly protect Kevin, and maybe reassured that he’s found someone he can be honest with. McAvoy’s almost-kiss in a British thriller you probably didn’t see laid the foundation for that.

There was also Atonement, in which McAvoy also plays a good-looking, unsophisticated guy who won’t allow himself to feel love, but this time in Great Britain during World War II. He falls for a girl way above his station, gets betrayed by that girl’s younger sister Briony, jailed, conscripted, shot, rotated back on leave, and brought face-to-face with his betrayer. Presented with the opportunity to exact revenge, McAvoy weighs anger and genuine curiosity at what Briony’s motivations could have been all those years ago, and as he paces around her, his sparing her and killing her seem equally likely. McAvoy brings this quality to every interaction he has over the course of Split, which is not a WWII drama.

Near the end of Split, that proclivity for skipping back and forth between emotions and comportments is on full display. All nine of the characters we’ve been introduced to all try at once to grab hold of Kevin’s consciousness. One pleads for the release of death, the other stutters a case for life, another asks the rest if they can all just take a moment to think about things. Taken separately, between full-bodied convulsions, each is believable. I could almost hear the fork against the wine glass. None of it is surprising — because James McAvoy is gangster.

And you will respect James McAvoy’s gangster.