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Split Review #2: James McAvoy Will Leave Your Skin Crawling

By Julian Roman — January 18th, 2017

Split is M. Night Shyamalan's best film in fifteen years. His second outing with micro-budget, horror producer Jason Blum isn't in the same league of Signs or The Sixth Sense. But delivers enough chills to warrant a positive recommendation. James McAvoy is a one man show here. He takes creepy to the nth degree with a truly disturbing performance. Shyamalan knows the value of his lead actor and lets him run to greatness. There's also the requisite twist ending, which I must acknowledge, is actually quite clever.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Casey, a withdrawn teenager at a birthday party. She's about to get a ride home with her classmates (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) when a strange man (McAvoy) gets into their car. He puts on a mask and gasses the girls. They wake up terrified in a sealed underground room. Their captor introduces himself as Dennis. He's very concerned that they remain clean.

The girls fear and bewilderment increase dramatically the next time they see their abductor. He is dressed and acts like a woman, named Patricia. They surmise that this man has a multiple personality disorder. As their bizarre ordeal continues, they meet different personalities, some who may be helpful. But time is running out. Each meeting points to the emergence of a new, significantly more dangerous personality; who seems to have a malevolent plan for the girls.

Shyamalan emulates Alfred Hitchcock in his work. Right down to the obligatory cameo. He's had varying degrees of success, just not in recent memory with clunkers like The Village. In Split, he achieves a solid level of tension and suspense throughout. You really have no idea where the story is going or how it's going to end. The characters do behave irrationally, but that's par for the horror movie course. They are at least written a bit smarter than the usual co-ed fodder.

James McAvoy is a tour de force psychopath. He will have your skin crawling. The idea of waking up in a dungeon with this guy is truly frightening. His character has twenty-four different personalities. You only see the dominant ones, but it is a crazy display to say the least. Shyamalan's concept for this character is quite imaginative. Each personality has its own strengths and weaknesses, even though they occupy the same body. So there are parts of him that want to help the girls, while others are complicit in their capture. It's pretty weird, but certainly holds your attention.

Shyamalan takes his low-budget to high concept in the execution. The entire film takes place on a few confined sets. He toys with the characters and the audience. Just when you think they're making progress to escape, they find their prison to be more formidable than imagined. It's textbook psychological manipulation that works very well in the context of the story.

Split has several back stories that come together for the climax. This includes a rather brilliant twist. No spoilers, but trust me when I say that it's very good. So good in fact, it makes you look at the entire film in a new light. I've been very hard on Shyamalan's work for years. He's honestly made some terrible films. It's great to see him regain some of the glory from his earlier days. From Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions, Split is definitely a thriller worth seeing.

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