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Front Page - Friday, January 27, 2017

Critic's Corner: 'Split' an unhinged new mind-bender

One of my favorite memories of watching a film with an audience came during the previews before a packed midnight showing of “Inception” in 2010. This was before there were sneak peek screenings on Thursday nights – when you knew you were sharing the theater with hardcore movie geeks.

As the trailer for “Devil” played, the words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” appeared on the screen. Everyone groaned in unison, then burst out in laughter at the collective recognition of what that name meant.

Shyamalan began his directing career with three bona fide classics and commercial hits: “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs.” To genre fans, he was a force of nature who could do no wrong.

Things began to go awry with “Lady in the Water.” By the time “The Last Airbender” came out in 2010, Shyamalan was – as I’ve already described – a laughing stock.

Last year, “The Visit” suggested Shyamalan might be stirring back to life. “Split,” a psychological thriller now in theaters, leaves no doubt: he’s back.

“Split” stars James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Kevin has 23 distinct personalities in him, some of whom are quite dangerous.

The film opens with Dennis, one of Kevin’s dominant personalities, kidnapping three teenaged girls from a mall parking lot and incarcerating them in an underground facility. Dennis tells the girls they’ll be sacrificed to The Beast when he arrives.

“You are sacred food,” Patricia, another dominant personality, tells the girls in a detached tone, as though she were announcing dinner will be at six. Shyamalan has a talent for clothing the malevolent in benign skin.

One of the girls, Casey Cook, emerges as a protagonist of sorts. Socially awkward and withdrawn, Casey is also smart and observant, and immediately begins to piece together an escape plan.

There are reasons why Casey is more prepared to deal with a predator than the other girls. These are revealed throughout “Split” as Shyamalan develops a character who, like Kevin, is more complex than she appears to be.

The same could be said of “Split” as a whole. In true M. Night fashion, the movie consists of many layers, some of which are not immediately visible.

On the surface, “Split” is gripping and tense. If the film were simply an escape thriller, it would work exceedingly well. Shyamalan traps the girls in a seemingly inescapable prison and places a tenacious villain in their path. Casey then sets about using her wits to get away before death comes. Shyamalan slowly brings this arrangement to a boil and then turns up the heat even higher to deliver a nail-biting experience.

“Split” is visually engaging to boot. Shyamalan fills the prison with alternating pockets of light and shadow and moves the camera through its corridors with ease. He does this without revealing its layout, I think to keep viewers off-balance.

Kevin’s personality swaps also keep the audience on edge. One minute, he’ll be an impermeable threat; the next, maternal and protective; and the next, playful and even trusting. Neither Casey nor viewers know who’s going to show up next – a fact Shyamalan uses to bump up the tension.

But “Split” goes deeper than the well-worn mechanics of the modern thriller to explore the predator-victim dynamic and the effects of abuse. The very nature of Kevin’s disorder suggests victims of abuse are shattered by what they experience.

For “Split,” Shyamalan did some of the best writing he’s done in years. His dialogue is revealing without being expository, and he uses the exchanges between his characters not just to tell the story but to plumb the depths of their psyches and the film’s hidden identity.

This layer of artfulness gives “Split” the kind of psychological depth one can find in Hitchcock’s best work, especially “Psycho.” But like those films, it can also be enjoyed as pure entertainment.

Without a doubt, the most entertaining aspect of “Split” is McAvoy’s performance. Or, should I say performances? Any one of his portrayals would have made for a brilliant turn, but McAvoy brought multiple characters to life, each with easily recognizable mannerisms and expressions.

Often, I would know which of Kevin’s personalities had surfaced simply from the look on McAvoy’s face or his posture. What’s more, as McAvoy shifts from one personality to the next, the film changes tone and situations go from menacing to calm or benign to threatening.

There are even scenes where McAvoy swaps characters in the same shot. Yet, his performance never comes across as a gimmick. Rather, his acting is natural and sinuous and sells the concept of a man who has many different people living inside of him.

I love what Steve Rose of The Guardian wrote about a particular scene near the end, in which Kevin morphs from one personality to another in an unbroken shot, like “the T-1000 at the end of ‘Terminator 2.’ But there are no special effects here, just acting.”

Speaking of the ending (without giving anything away), there’s a mounting sense throughout “Split” that something terrifying, or extraordinary, or both is coming. Shyamalan does not disappoint. If anyone tries to tell you what happens, run.

I went into “Split” hoping it would be a return to form for Shyamalan. I left the theater with a huge smile on my face. Not only has Shyamalan gone back to the kind of mesmerizing filmmaking that marked the first part of his career, he’s made a movie that’s fun to watch.

I don’t think anyone will be laughing the next time they see the words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” appear onscreen.

3.5 stars out of 4