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3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

And here we are, into the second half of January already and not a single new release in sight. You’ll have to go to your smart TV for that — January is usually a dumping ground for all these tiny indies that either never got a proper release in theaters and thus went straight to VOD or got them in your local arthouse theater, but also got sent to Amazon, VUDU, iTunes, and the like.

So because of this, we get either leftovers from December releases playing on autopilot for another month as they try to entice themselves into awards season, or expansions like 20th Century Women, a movie I saw at the New York Film Festival on October 8th which expands to the rest of America after a limited, late-December run. If you  miss anything in January, including the movie I will review next, don’t miss this one. It’s a fierce ensemble headed by a note-perfect Annette Bening as a family matriarch trying to secure a future for her teenage son in the twilight hours of the 1970s. I secretly hope she gets an Academy Award for her performance; she’s one of these horribly overdue actresses who have had the misfortune of competing with other, more likeable actresses who have, like Trump to Hillary, whisked the gold statuette right out of her hands, often to never measure up to that moment ever again (I’m talking to you, Hilary Swank).

Split is M Night Shyamalan’s newest film that gets dumped into the January graveyard presumably to make a quick buck during the calendar month and be well gone by the time the sequel to the horrifying 50 Shades of Grey arrives. If you’ve ever seen Discovery ID’s shows on abductions — namely House of Horrors, or Evil Lives Here, among others — you will know the premise of this, his new film. Three girls get abducted in a swift but terrific opening act that is as brutal as it is casual. And you realize, holy shit it really is that easy to dominate not one but four people in an act of sudden appearance into the fabric of their ho-hum lives and just turn everything upside down in an instant. Shyamalan keeps the camera off the abductor during these scenes, relying more on movement and tension focused on the victims.

What happens later is something straight out of 10 Cloverfield Lane, but without a John Goodman acting as a bearish captor. Instead, we get a muscular yet lean James McAvoy who looks and feels like a man you do not want to cross, ever. All these shows of psychopaths keeping their victims captive for weeks, or years, before disposing of them in an unspeakable way, and you get where three girls, played by Anna Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula would be scared half out of their wits but also thinking on overdrive how to potentially overpower them. I can’t blame them — with so many forensic shows on TV the insane has become, in one fell swoop, normal. You can sit down in a moment of insanity and wonder how are you going to stun that fucker who just abducted you and manage to escape with nary a fracture and your life intact.

Turns out, their captor isn’t  just a psychopath. Dennis, who goes by Barry and other aliases, has 23 personalities inside of him, all vying for control. [We don’t get to meet them all; just the necessary for this story.]  As Dennis he’s more the psychopathic creep who would do what he does to these girls, but as Barry, he’s a mild mannered metrosexual wondering where the hell is his life going that he can’t remember days and weeks on end and still thinks it’s 2014. Meanwhile, the girls try all they can to out-maneuver Dennis and escape. Richardson and Sula both wind up locked separately, while Taylor-Joy manages to do the unthinkable: befriend Dennis as a young boy, make him take her into his makeshift room, and allow her to use the radio to call out (unsuccessfully) for help. [We later in an ironic turn learn why and it makes sense.]

For a solid hour and ten minutes Split slowly ascends, tightening the knot more and more, until we come to realize that somehow,in one shape, sense, or another, these girls have to escape. We get little real interaction between the girls (who become separated anyway, and then the camera focuses only on Anna Tqylor-Joy, who following her turn in The VVitch, is very good as your Final Girl). Taylor-Joy’s character gets her own backstory, and this flashback  sequence starts revealing little bits and pieces of her character.  Interspersed within the narration is Betty Buckley (the gym teacher in Carrie) who is Barry’s psychiatrist. Buckley for the most plays her part straight, but a third act cry for help lands her in a place she’d rather not be (although even then she does manage to serve the plot developments to a T).

It’s right after the 60 – 70 minute mark that the story, which has been so far good, somehow slips its clutches and grasps for something greater. I don’t want to say any more that would amount to a spoiler. However, because I like well-made thrillers and horror movies, I believe that if you’re going to devote a lot of time to backstory that seems to be heading into something greater, you should deliver. I also am of the belief that once the story has nowhere else to go, it should end, and end there. There’s no need to escalate a climactic showdown into something quasi-operatic filled with ruminations that frankly make as sense to me as the math Ramanujan believed in. Horror doesn’t need that much, really. De Palma’s Raising Cain — a movie that Shyamalan’s Split clearly borrows a lot from — also did this to a lesser degree. If it weren’t for McAvoy, who is truly menacing — even more so than Lithgow in the aforementioned movie — I would have shut my eyes and gone to nap. He alone makes this movie work.

My advice to anyone going to Shyamalan’s movie is, go, sure, why not. It’s January Graveyard, folks: nothing to see here, come, enjoy the spoils, whatever. Just don’t expect anything more than an above average chiller curiously sterile of real horror and a rather bland pay-off.  The man who made The Sixth Sense has long, long left the building.