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‘Split’-take

Yes, Shyamalan’s most recent entry is actually good – and thrilling

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With the movie theaters still churning out some truly uninspiring options (They made an eighth “Fast and the Furious” movie. An eighth!), I continue to revisit the more intriguing recent films I missed that are now trickling into DVD and/or Netflix releases.

“Split” came out in January, but it was just released on DVD/Blu-ray this past Tuesday, so I will claim it’s still relevant and plant my fingers firmly in my ears while Hollywood’s sequel addiction breaks records at the box office.

If anyone remembers my review of “The Visit” (I will be immensely offended if you don’t, let me tell you), I said that, while that film wasn’t exactly “good,” it was the first M. Night Shyamalan film in more than a decade that wasn’t wholly terrible. High praise, I know.

And while “Split” doesn’t measure up to, say, “Signs” (my personal favorite of Shyamalan’s), it’s actually worth watching on its own merits, signaling that, as long as he understands his limits – and he’s thoroughly tested them, to be sure – Shyamalan can still make good movies.

In the film, three teenaged girls – Casey, Haley, and Jessica – are kidnapped and imprisoned by Kevin (James McAvoy), a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and has 23 personalities.

The central conflict surrounds both the girls’ efforts to escape and the reasons for their capture, as they’re never sure which of Kevin’s personalities is in control – and what they’re planning. 

One thing that’s instantly likeable about “Split”: It gets right down to business, as the very first scene sees the three girls kidnapped as they leave a party. There’s no setup or backstory, which gets the audience invested immediately.

This does lead to a bit too much expositional development of the girls’ relationship later on – for example, we’re told, rather than shown, that Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) has always been considered an odd outsider by the other two girls, who are entirely forgettable.

Casey is at least lent some complexity, and she turns out to be a very resourceful character in probing Kevin’s personalities for signs of one that can help spring the trio.

Some might have a problem with the demonization of mental illness at the crux of this movie – a valid concern, certainly – but I think the movie moves far enough from the realm of reality that most moviegoers will understand it’s purely fictional. 

It has to be said, though, that while not all 23 personalities are brought to the screen, playing the half a dozen-plus of Kevin’s personalities that do show up is – improbably – a task that James

McAvoy handles effectively. He’s always shown signs of impressive acting chops as a young

Charles Xavier in the more recent X-Men films, but “Split” allows for unprecedented range. 

“Split” is pretty thrilling at times, too. Some of the tenser scenes devolve into cliché (Why are you hiding in a locker in a horror movie?), but others are genuinely stressful – aided by the score, with its heartbeat-paced pieces ramping up the intensity.

Two other welcome notes about the thrills: Jump scares and gross-out moments (which “The Visit” had more than its fair share of) are nowhere to be found. Nope, this is a collection of escape attempts and chase scenes that don’t drag, even with the clichés.

The anticipated “twist” is more of a turn; it doesn’t upend the movie’s universe in the way the reveals in “The Village” or “The Happening” do, but this subtlety is definitely welcome.

So, despite the paper-thin ‘characters’ of Haley and Jessica, “Split” is both an effective thriller and a well-put-together film. It has a few too many clichés to be anything transcendent, but it’s a welcome entry in the oft-ridiculed Shyamalan’s filmography.

“Split,” rated PG-13, is available on DVD/Blu-ray and on digital media platforms. Like my reviews? Give me a shout on Twitter at @MovieMuseSean

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‘Split’-take