Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Split review

Hit the jump to peruse my thoughts on M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller - 'Split' - starring James McAvoy in 24 distinct roles (or, supposedly doing so)...

First of all, I'd just like to thank Blogger for deleting my whole goddamn review after it was 3/4 finished. Bravo.

James McAvoy as a 9 year old!
Every M. Night Shyamalan film arrives with a certain sort of self-imposed fanfare - as if the director really has anything to shout about. 'The Sixth Sense' had a good ending, and 'Unbreakable' was pretty interesting - but 'Signs' and everything after that fell into a sort of trash heap until 2015's 'The Visit'. The latter was a lot better than expected - at times very funny, and at times a little scary. But, to my surprise, 'Split' arrives with not just Shyamalan self-important schtick - but also with a hefty stamp of critical approval. It's been called terrifying, thrilling, and unique. Not to mention the incredible high-concept idea of James McAvoy playing 24 different characters! I went into this one with eager anticipation - not exactly of the levels I'm feeling for this week's 'T2 Trainspotting' - but excitement nonetheless.

The story focuses on Kevin - a man suffering from DID (Disassociative Identity Disorder), which means that 23 distinct personalities live inside him. When possessed by one of these such personalities, he becomes so attached to them that he feels that he is actually that person (if you catch my drift). One of these such personalities kidnaps three teenage girls (who I assume are supposed to be around 13/14 years old) and takes them back to a purpose-made lair to await the creation of 'The Beast' - a new personality that threatens to take things to a whole new level. This narrative of the girls attempting to escape from McAvoy's clutches jostles with a secondary storyline of Kevin's psychiatrist - played with aplomb by Betty Buckley - trying to figure out what's going on with her patient before it's too late. So far so good.

Well, no. I'll admit now that I was heavily disappointed by this movie.

In captivity
Firstly, and perhaps worst of all, the marketing is a white lie. Yes, Kevin does have 23 personalities, but we don't see them onscreen. Instead, for the bulk of the movie, we see 4 of them - and then, in the last third, we see a fifth. 5/24 seems an incredibly poor score. I went into this film looking for a unique and interesting character study to complement the pulpy story, but I just didn't find that. Instead, what we get is a surprisingly goofy performance in the lead role. Sure, McAvoy is great in the film, and is clearly enjoying it; but whole affair is altogether too camp to engender any real suspense or fear in the audience. For example, all five characters used (camp fashion designer, OCD creep, 9 year old boy, authoritative British teacher; and 'The Beast') are open to all kinds of levels of parody - they're ridiculously constructed, and nothing more than stereotypical representations of stock characters. This means that, although at times Kevin can be creepy (more on that later), he's mostly just funny - not really going in the right direction for a horror movie.

In fact, this leads me nicely onto the second issue with 'Split' - that for a psychological thriller, it is neither scary nor thrilling. Throughout this entire film, I felt not one speck of tension (despite in the opening scenes which are rather good). Towards the end, I tried to force myself to get into its spirit - to feel a palpable atmosphere - but my circuits just came up blank. Instead, what we've got is a clear-cut situation. The main character, a reclusive outcast played by Anya Taylor Joy is clearly going to survive, and it's a PG-13 (15 over here in the UK) so not much else can happen.... McAvoy is rather funny and non-threatening in the majority of scenes, with only the sinister paedophillic character providing any chills. And, indeed, this unsatisfactory interplay continues all the way until the third act, when the Beast is unleashed. For me, at this point the movie became so ridiculous (running like a dog, climbing flat walls etc.) that I didn't know whether to laugh or not. Sure, other people in the cinema were gasping as if paralysed with fear - but I genuinely was getting absolutely nothing from it.

Running through the corridors in the final scenes.
The third, and most unusual, criticism is the worrying way in which Shyamalan portrays and treats his young cast; hear me out on this one. Firstly, there's the much commented on, and entirely ham-fisted child-abuse subplot that comes in to try and evoke an emotional reaction. The scenes Shyamalan decides to explore from this are weirdly explicit - from a naked uncle luring his niece into the woods and doing naked press ups; to (SPOILER) him later becoming her legal guardian; and an ambiguous shot that could either be Casey crying very vigorously, or actually being sexually assaulted by her uncle. I'm not sure why these scenes are in the movie - well I am - but I'm not entirely comfortable with them. The first reason is to establish Casey as tougher than the other preppy girls, and to explain why she's such an outsider. There seems to be no reason to invoke such a dramatic story arc in order to fulfill this device - some people are just naturally introverted! The second is to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience (oh, isn't it horrific what she's been through). Again, this is rather worryingly similar to 'torture-porn' films such as 'Saw' and really turns a genuine world issue into a trivial plot device. And the third is to justify a concluding moral message that really makes no sense whatsoever - and is actually a rather damning thing to say all things considered. I'm genuinely interested to know whether that final reasoning comes from Shyamalan himself, or whether it was thrown in to wrap up the story.

Secondly, on that point, Shyamalan seems to be worryingly sexually obsessed with these young characters. The actresses may all be around 20; but in the film, they're clearly being used to play young high-schoolers. Throughout 'Split', McAvoy's most perverted character, Dennis, progressively forces the girls to take items of their clothing off - so that after 20 minutes, we're left with a trio of scantily clad girls in hotpants/skirts and tights running around in a basement screaming. Infer from that what you will, but I think Shyamalan has some answering to do. On top of this, his camera angles seem to accentuate a sexual nature to the scenes which didn't need to be there in the first place. In one attempted escape scene, particularly, he incessantly focuses on the tights and legs of one of the girls; and in the final scenes, Anya Taylor Joy is practically naked - running screaming through the corridors.

You can really feel the 'It Follows' here.
My last main criticism is that a lot of screen-time seems to be devoted to that particular Dan Brown adaptation facet of plot exposition. The psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher, spends a lot of time explaining McAvoy's condition - even at one point giving a lecture (they can change their body mass etc.). This way of simply explaining to the audience that A) the plot makes sense, and B) This is clearly what will happen seems overly forced. Likewise, the child abuse backstory serves as a cliched reminder that Casey can indeed fight back.

Sure, despite all that negativity, 'Split' does have some notable positives. The opening scene is fantastically intense and disturbing - not to mention beautifully filmed by 'It Follows' cinematographer Mike Gioulakis. The opening credits, themselves, are also a work of art - that unfortunately oversell the rest of the movie. McAvoy's performance, although goofy, is entertaining to watch - and had he covered the full hog of personalities, no doubt my review would have been very different. It's rather funny (intentionally) in a number of points - which is always a plus. If you can overlook the supreme trashiness of the plot, then perhaps you can find some interesting (and perhaps even thrilling depending on what you like) entertainment, And, despite lacking in the chills that I had wanted, the finale does provide some darker thematic material that I really enjoyed watching. One scenee, in particular (you'll know when you see it), had surprising emotional heft for me. Despite being, at times, slow - it's never actually boring,

This time he's a woman!
Lastly, but not leastly, is there an M Night Shyamalan trademark twist? The answer is A) Yes; B) It's gonna flip what you've just seen on its head; C) You probably won't get it (and there's good reason for that); and D) I think these plot devices are getting old - this director has become a bit too much of a meme for Hollywood to sustain.

So there you have it, 'Split' isn't very good. It's not horrifically bad, but it underdelivers on almost every front - creating a lukewarm mess of tonal mistakes and unintentional jokes. The twist is good though (after I had to Google it :)).
'Split' gets 2 stars!

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