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‘Split’ a multi-faceted triumph

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Horror thriller an exceptional offering from Shyamalan

M. Night Shyamalan has had a bit of a roller-coaster cinematic career. From early work like “The Sixth Sense” that had some putting him in the same conversation as giants like Spielberg to a stretch of poorly-made, poorly-received effects-laden blockbusters that turned him into a punchline, his time in the director’s chair has run the gamut.

We saw a glimpse of a rebound with 2015’s “The Visit,” the found-footage team-up with Jason Blum’s low-budget film factory Blumhouse Productions. But with “Split,” his latest offering, it looks like Shyamalan might have finally come all the way back from his nadir. This film captures so much of what the writer/director does well while eschewing almost all of the superfluous stuff that had been weighing down his work.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, “Morgan”) isn’t particularly well-liked at school, but she still gets invited to the birthday party of popular girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, “The Edge of Seventeen”). When her ride fails to show up, she ends up getting a ride with Claire and Claire’s friend Marcia (Jessica Sula, TV’s “Recovery Road”). But they don’t get far - a mysterious man (James McAvoy, “X-Men: Apocalypse”) drugs and kidnaps them in broad daylight.

Casey, Claire and Marcia wake up locked inside a dingy room. Frightened and confused, they have no idea why they are there or what their captor wants. Said fear and confusion is amplified when they soon discover that the man who has taken them is far more than he seems.

It turns out that the man suffers from dissociative identity disorder. As a young man, Kevin was subjected to systematic abuse that caused a fracturing of his personality and led to the development of 23 distinct personalities occupying the same space. His therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, “5 Time Champion”) is an expert in the field, believing that these psychological phenomena can also result in physiological shifts.

Three of Kevin’s personalities – obsessive-compulsive Dennis, no-nonsense Patricia and nine-year-old Hedwig – have staged an internal coup of sorts, taking control of Kevin at the behest of a heretofore unknown 24th personality they refer to as “The Beast.” Apparently, the three girls are to serve some sort of nefarious purpose in helping to fully bring the Beast to the surface.

Casey proves to be more resourceful than her fellow captives, trying to engage with the various personalities (who are each unaware of the controlling personality’s actions) and find a way to get herself and her friends out of their dank prison before it is too late and they are forced to come face to face with a potentially deadly something that can’t be reasoned with.

(And in case you were wondering, yes, there is a twist.)

“Split” is the best film we’ve gotten from Shyamalan in well over a decade. There’s an intensity of purpose that has been largely absent after his first few outings. Frankly, this is the sort of movie he should have been making all along, relying on the director’s strong aesthetic sense and knack for engaging, complex storytelling. With the big-budget pressures removed from the equation, he’s free to tell the stories he’s truly passionate about telling. He’s stopped believing his own hype and audiences are the luckier for it.

All that said, the truth is that without James McAvoy, this movie probably doesn’t work. At the very least, it isn’t nearly as good, because his performance is legitimately exceptional. The term “tour de force” gets thrown around fairly lightly these days, but the term absolutely applies here. The degree of difficulty with a role like this is off the charts; in essence, McAvoy is a cast unto himself. We see something like eight or nine distinct, different characters from him, each with their own affects and mannerisms. There’s nothing gimmicky about it; the shifts are both overt and subtle, sometimes taking place numerous times in the space of a single moment. It is magnificent work from a gifted actor; he puts the film on his shoulders and elevates it with a performance that is flat-out incredible.

He’s not alone, though. Taylor-Joy is one to watch, a talented young actress who disappears into roles with an honesty that we rarely see. Her Casey is smart and savvy despite her current situation and damaged past, creating a heroine that far outstrips the usual genre trappings. Richardson and Sula are good as well, even if the nature of their respective roles is a bit one-note. Buckley does yeoman’s work, bringing life to scenes that are essentially expository plot advancement. Hers isn’t the flashiest of parts, but there’s an inescapable genuineness to what she does.

“Split” is a gripping film that manages to feel both expansive and suffocating, a well-crafted piece of genre fare that transcends its genre. It also features what one could argue is the greatest “horror” performance of the last two decades or more from McAvoy. It is visually engaging and viscerally intense.

Every night has its dawn. “Split” is Shyamalan’s rising sun.

[5 out of 5]

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