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M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ features many villains in one

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James McAvoy gets to know himself a little better in Split
Photo: Universal Pictures / Courtesy

Three and a half stars

Split James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

After a string of truly terrible movies, once-acclaimed writer-director M. Night Shyamalan put himself on the comeback trail with 2015’s v, a scrappy, low-budget found-footage horror-comedy that showcased his strengths at building suspense and populating horror stories with thoughtful, well-rounded characters. Split is more ambitious than The Visit, with a visual style more in line with Shyamalan’s carefully composed early features, but it retains the same scrappy B-movie charm, telling a sometimes familiar horror story with confidence and a surprising amount of depth.

That story begins with teenage outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her popular-girl frenemies Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) getting kidnapped by a mysterious man (James McAvoy) who holds them prisoner in a dingy underground bunker. The three girls soon discover that their captor is actually several different people in one, as he suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and his 23 personalities are immersed in severe conflict. Even as he prepares his captives for the arrival of “the beast,” he’s still attending sessions with his motherly therapist (Betty Buckley), who eventually starts to realize something isn’t right.

Shyamalan takes a pulpy, semi-supernatural approach to depicting DID, a real (if controversial) condition, but he also creates an unexpectedly moving and sympathetic portrayal of surviving abuse, both in the villain’s extreme behavior and in Casey’s slowly unfolding backstory, which shows up in periodic flashbacks. Shyamalan allows those emotions to sneak up on the audience after holding them in suspense for nearly the entire preceding two hours, steadily ratcheting up the tension in anticipation of “the beast.”

McAvoy expertly inhabits numerous distinct personalities, and Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Morgan) is expressive and vulnerable, continuing her ascent as the new queen of horror. The only real sour note is a final stinger that serves as a cheap, opportunistic promotional tool, nearly undermining the grace of the main story’s ending. Shyamalan is headed in the right direction, but he hasn’t quite lost his instinct for the shameless.

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