Film & Television

Betty Buckley has Sympathy for the Devil in Hit Movie ‘Split’

Anya Taylor Joy, who was riveting in last year’s supernatural thriller The Witch, is equally mesmerizing as Casey. Her fair skin, dark hair and enormous eyes, make her look like a manga heroine come to life. With two more leading roles in store for 2017, this 20-year old seems like someone we’ll see a lot more of. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are also good, balancing fear (warranted and genuine) with a “girl power” determination to survive.

If you were a fan of the romantic leading man from Atonement or Becoming Jane, you’ll see a very different side of James McAvoy here. Multiple sides actually, and at times in such quick succession that his performance itself feels like a special effect. The role was originally meant for Joaquin Phoenix (memorable in Shyamalan’s Signs), but it’s hard to imagine any actor surpassing McAvoy’s jaw-dropping and sometimes (all right, often) terrifying performance. In fact, I would have liked meeting more of Kevin’s personalities, but the film already feels long (apparently, the director’s original cut was three hours and some of the deleted scenes will be available when it’s released on DVD).

In all this chaos, Betty Buckley is a welcome voice of reason. Buckley worked with Shyamalan previously in The Happening, and welcomed the chance to be part of this project. For Split, the actress turned to a psychologist friend to help her hone in on what Dr. Fletcher would say to Kevin as well as what she would feel. “My patients are my family,” she tells him, helping us understand why she might have a blind spot as he evolves into more and more of a threat. When she does realize that something is terribly wrong, she courageously tracks him down and becomes an unlikely hero.

The role of Dr. Fletcher is an interesting and intelligent addition to the teenage-girls-in-peril formula. Typically, we would have scenes of police or FBI in a race against time. (And, we have to assume that once the kidnapping is discovered, there’s a manhunt going on.) Instead, Shyamalan inserts quiet, thoughtful sessions in the psychologist’s townhouse. Buckley’s intense probing, non-judgment, and true interest in her patient slows the film’s otherwise edge-of-your-seat pace. We welcome each of her scenes because they shed light on the villain’s story. She’s also (unknown to them) the girls’ greatest hope. If anyone can piece together what has happened, it’s her. But, will it be in time?

Like some of Shyamalan’s other films, there’s more than a little ambiguity when all is said and done. There’s also a surprise crossover appearance by a character from one of his earlier films, which sets up the possibility of a sequel.

The movie’s ending is climactic, but not wholly satisfying. (I won’t give it away, but I’ll just warn you that there are some genuinely beastly bits.) Split may not be to everyone’s taste, but the story, craftsmanship, and excellent performances will haunt you for quite a while.

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