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I don’t want to say too much about M.Night Shyamalan’s comeback, because a) I covered that last year when I wrote about “The Visit,” and b) I’m still doing my best to forget the terrible movies he made between “Signs” and “The Visit.”  Let’s just say that his newest, “Split,” proves that “The Visit” wasn’t a fluke.  He’s back to making bloody good horror-lite flicks. Thank God.

“Split” is about a psycho named Kevin, played by James McAvoy, who kidnaps three teenage girls and has dark plans for them. We learn early on that this psycho has multiple personalities, or Disassociative Identity Disorder. (It should probably go without saying that the portrayal of a mental illness in a horror flick has almost no resemblance to reality, and has the potential to stigmatize real-life sufferers of that illness. Let’s all do each other a big favor and remember that, ok?)

McAvoy gleefully chews the scenery portraying these different personalities, and I think we get to know them better than we do the kidnapped girls we’re supposed to be rooting for.  There’s  the naughty, lisping child Hedwig, the terse, OCD-afflicted Dennis, the flashy fashion designer Barry, and the southern belle Patricia. McAvoy’s performance is fun and flashy, and perfectly suited to this kind of movie, but let’s not forget, this kind of thing isn’t that hard. Playing real human beings with complex and conflicted emotions is much more difficult than playing psychos, doing what amounts to celebrity impressions.

Kevin occasionally visits a psychotherapist, played by Betty Buckley, who thinks that DID might hold the key to the next phase of human evolution, since those who suffer from it seem able to change their body chemistry at will (one personality is diabetic, another is allergic to bees, etc.) This sets up a pretty emo idea that Shyamalan rides into the ground by the climax — that our brokenness is what makes us beautiful and powerful. That idea is fairly common in pop culture, and has always felt rather naive to me – the people who shout it most loudly don’t seem to have ever experienced the kind of brokenness they find so beautiful. (A character in the film would call them “the impure.”)  I’ve never met a single person who has been sexually or physically abused who is thankful or grateful it happened, but the climax of this film might lead you to the conclusion that they should.  That’s nonsense.

 Everything stays pretty thin throughout “The Split.” We never really get to know any of the three girls (played by Hayley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and, most notably, “The Witch”‘s Anya-Taylor Joy, who better make a non-horror flick quickly before she gets typecast) even though Shyamalan includes flashbacks of our heroine, to establish a fact about her life that probably could have been established more effectively in a third of the time by a more efficient director. This is consistently Shyamalan’s weakness; he has no gift for shorthand.  Everything is spelled out at a pace that can nicely be called leisurely.  But considering the much more massive problems so many of his problems have suffered from – problems he’s gone to great lengths to fix in his last two films – this might feel like quibbling. Suffice it to say, in my mind, he’s still not a great filmmaker.  But he’s not an awful one anymore.

His strength is that he is always in complete control of his camera. I read somewhere that he storyboards every scene of a film before he starts shooting, and that kind of meticulous planning pays off in “Split”  Fear is much more about what you don’t see than about what you do, and Shyamalan is very intentional about what we see, and when.  That makes “Split” a consistently entertaining, sometimes harrowing film, a solid, if not terribly original horror flick.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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