Friday, 17 March 2017

Kong's a pretty good king.

Kong: Skull Island
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Just two entries in, and a running flaw has already established itself in Legendary Pictures’ bid for a “MonsterVerse” cinematic universe: exemplary visuals (delivered by talented directors) and laudable design work married to borderline non-existent characterisation. For the humans, at any rate. Is this an endemic problem with such movies, that the massive, monstrous protagonists inevitably dwarf their human counterparts? I don’t know. At least Kong himself fares better in Kong: Skull Island than most over-sized feature creatures, mainly because he isn’t over-used and is mostly well-used when he is. But Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ movie generally seems uncertain over how to integrate its ingredients, from overblown Nam motifs to puerile anti-war sentiments to wacky comic relief.


Skull Island occasionally put me in mind of the considerably slenderer budgeted but considerably more imaginative 1975 adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot. Like Kevin Connor’s flick, Kong takes place during a period of warfare long enough past to have entered the realm of the mythic (60 years for Land, 45 for Skull Island), where the iconography of its fictional representations have become irrevocably entwined with the reality. Both take place almost entirely on strange and isolated islands populated by freaky creatures and feature uneasy alliances between differently, sometimes dubiously, motivated groups.


But, while Land offers mysteries and secrets to solve, Skull Island is an open book. There’s nothing up the sleeve of the screenplay credited to Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (Godzilla) and Derek Connolly (presumably employed because he co-wrote Jurassic World’s less-than-original-but-made-a-lot-of-dough screenplay). Maybe it’s John Gatin’s fault, since he provided the storyline and also furnished us with dreck like Real Steel and Need for Speed. Or perhaps it’s the old story of writers hard-pressed to juggle the demands of studio execs? Either way, beyond the admittedly arresting conceit of the period, which has already been stretched a very long way with its Kong meets Apocalypse Now advertising, there’s too much here that seems like a missed opportunity.


Kong’s so preoccupied with staking its franchise claim that director Jordan Voight-Roberts fails to ensure it is authentically pulpy, in the immersive way the best of these sorts of pictures are (see Raiders of the Lost Ark for the prime example). Instead, he mashes up genres and tropes and wonders why they don’t stick better. John C Reilly and Samuel L Jackson are in completely different movies, you’re never remotely convinced Tom Hiddleston is really hanging out in ‘70s Nam, and the island, for all that it includes some wonderful vignettes (the giant spider!) and stunning vistas, fails to evoke a truly uncanny environment.


There are stirrings of something more intriguing with John Goodman’s Bill Randa, promoting the always-appealing Hollow Earth theory (not that we get to see it – just one of those missed opportunities) and the lore of MUTOs, former dominant life forms on the planet, all set to regain control of the Earth, something that has been an enduring touchstone in one shape of form (Doctor Who’s The Silurians providing one period-appropriate example). There’s also his tale of surviving a monstrous encounter as a young sailor (something that might have been a more evocative means of starting the picture, as well as a direct link to Godzilla) And, being the ‘70s, the setup wouldn’t be complete without the lure of conspiracy, as seen in the government agency Randa works for, one with a – really obvious to the audience -– secret agenda. Oddly (or is it?), it’s called Monarch, which is also the name of the (purported) CIA mind control programme of that era.


So, there’s more than enough potential, but while Vogt-Roberts brings a turbo-charged, stylistic tour de force to much of the imagery and action, there’s only ever lip service to era, be it the references to Nixon, the war is hell of Nam or the liberal dousing of period pop tunes (regardless of how prolific they’d actually be in ’73), so literal they have White Rabbit playing in the bar where Hiddleston’s ex-SAS Captain James Conrad is found (Hiddleston’s performance is professional and serviceable, but outside of the occasional deadpan “How lovely” in response to some new nastiness, he feels miscast. He also has zero chemistry with Larson).


The maxim of any action movie worth its salt ought to be, “If you don’t care about the characters, you aren’t going to care about the spectacle”, no matter how expensive that spectacle. It’s this that’s far more damaging to Skull Island than the straight in-straight out linearity of the narrative (there’s no time to explore the island, with its set deadline; even Land, half an hour shorter, managed to get to grips with the mechanics of its microcosm; there’s a tribe in Skull Island but they’re resolutely silent, which I don’t know if it’s a stroke of genius or a complete cop out).


The deaths are meaningless. Even Reilly’s comic relief doesn’t feel indispensable (Reilly’s funny, but the producers bafflingly believe we care so much about his WWII survivor Hank Marlow that we’ll be invested in his credits roll family reunion; it would be neither here nor there if he’d been offed by a skullcrawler). In this regard, the demise of Goodman’s Randa, who actually had something interesting going on, is more of a loss. Crucially, I cared more for the giant stick insect Toby Kebell starts shooting at, which has all of a minute of screen time, than any of the humans.


The grunts are clearly designed to supply the broad strokes impact of the units in Aliens or Predator but entirely fail to do so. Kebbell makes an appearance in a non-motion captured role for a change, but his CGI counterparts confound his intentions (he does get one of the best lines, though: “Is that a monkey?”) Shea Whigham manages to exert some presence and at least goes out in a manner that made wonder for a moment if Vogt-Roberts was taking the piss out of such heroic last stand moments (his self-detonation is so completely off target, but it doesn’t play as a laugh, yet feels like it should) and was a minimalist commentary on the efficacy of the US war machine. But then I just as quickly concluded that such an interrogation was probably a waste of time. Generally, the attempts at commentary in the picture happily fit the description banal.


Jackson has more impact, of course, since the 2-D villainy of Colonel Preston Packard, bent on winning at all costs, having “abandoned” Nam (the “It was a draw” line having long since been taken by A Fish Called Wanda) allows him engage in some patented bellowing and ranting. He’s not very interesting, basically, so hissable that he may as well be a Disney villain, and falling into the same category we recently saw in Logan, where the bad guys can’t compete with the hero.


Who’s Kong, obviously, and who is surprisingly one of the better elements of the picture. I say surprisingly, as I’ve never found the character remotely interesting (I’m one of those who was always more fascinated by the dinosaurs of the original, before they happened across the great ape). His primal protector role, “King” of the island (given Legendary can’t actually call him King Kong directly, they’re amusingly cheeky about getting as close as they possibly can), is much more effective than the enormous simian chubby he develops for a tiny human female in each previous new iteration. Even given he’s bigger than before, and going to get even bigger for his upcoming grand slam tournament, the choice doesn’t detract from the action. 


Vogt-Roberts has clearly put a lot of thought into how to use Kong in each sequence, from the teaser that wisely dispenses with the whole origins business (albeit, that’s actually ma or pa Kong) and goes straight to the reveal, to the decisive takedown of military firepower as he swats helicopters away like flies. Later he wrestles (and makes sushi of) a giant squid-like thing and does some impressive WWF moves on the daddy of all skullcrushers before extracting its innards via its tongue (all these sequences needed were some Looney Tunes sound effects to sell how funny they might have been).


If avoiding the Kong/Ann Darrow romance angle is a plus, no one on board has stepped up to the plate of making Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver even remotely plausible. She’s a war photographer who’d make James Woods and Jon Savage in Salvador spit blood, particularly when she breathlessly announces “I’ve photographed enough war zones in my time to know a mass grave when I see one”. And that’s only the start. Mason struggles futilely to save a giant deer, which endears her to Kong. She instructs Packard not to shoot Conrad, whom he is all set to… and he doesn’t. Why? Go figure. She must just have that special something.


You could say it isn’t Larson’s fault, but she did take the bloody part (and the sizeable pay cheque). The last time such a graceless plummet befell a Best Actress Oscar winner, Halle Berry followed Monster’s Ball with Die Another Day and Catwoman. Weaver is, at least, an effective snapshot of all the issues with the picture; how exactly does a war photographer get on board a classified mission? Why do all her pictures look like they’ve been passed through a Photoshop Elements filter? She even goes around announcing she’s an “anti-war photographer”, before waging war on a skullcrusher with a flare pistol (there’s no reason for her to be an expert shot with it, other than this we are now two decades into post-Buffy Hollywood and such lazy empowerment is assumed (even her character name is irritatingly indolent, as if summoning Ripley’s ghost is all that’s necessary).


Vogt-Roberts also includes more than enough cheesy moments to make the argument he hasn’t much idea of what he’s doing (Larson charging in out of nowhere, lobbing an explosive cigarette lighter; Hiddleston, in a gasmask, brandishing a samurai sword, rollicking to the rescue), because they’re played straight rather than with an eye to how inane they are, by pretty actors unable to inhabit the sendup they need to work. He also tries to riff on the patriotic fallen heroes vibe (complete with mournful Henry Jackman score) that worked in Predator – kind of – but flails badly.


And yet, there’s still more than enough in the way of sheer panache. Cinematographer Larry Fong, on day release from Zach Snyder’s juvenile paws, is able to revert to the kind of scenic canopy that made his work on Lost so lush. Early scenes flow confidently and fulfil their potential, including the assembling of the team, the encounter with and fly through of the wall of fog, all the while a Nixon bobblehead informing the mission, and a dragonfly foregrounded as helicopters drop bombs. Indeed, the picture only really begins to own up to its shortage of ideas once Kong has downed everyone. And even then, Vogt-Roberts continues to devise set pieces like an artier exponent of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie (his use of slow motion is a delight).


Easily my favourite moment in Skull Island comes during the helicopter destruction derby, as one of the humans plunges towards Kong’s open jaws. Vogt-Roberts cuts away to a close-up of character biting into a sandwich. It’s the sort of thing Joe Dante would have embraced, if he’d had his hands on a blockbuster of this ilk, and suggests its director nurses an appealing, blackly comic streak. Likewise, John Ortiz being carried off by tiny vicious birds and having his arm torn off in silhouette against an orange sunset is both horrifying (well, it would be more so if Ortiz wasn’t as profoundly irritating as he always is) and audaciously witty. And then there’s Goodman’s camera flash, stuck on repeat from the belly of a skullcrusher. Vogt-Roberts refuses to allow his shots or sequences breathe the way Gareth Edwards did with Godzilla, which means that ultimately his set pieces aren’t as well-constructed, but the upside is a pacier picture, and simply a more engaging, likeable one.


I remain to be convinced that Legendary can come up with the goods for their MonsterVerse, however, and it’s difficult to see Kong vs Godzilla playing out any differently to Batman V Superman, just with less human interest (if that’s possible), but I’m all aboard for whatever Vogt-Roberts chooses next. Hopefully it will allow him to exercise that funny bone, and if it doesn’t, perhaps he should go back to making something smaller and more personal.






Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

I, er, wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them.

Full Metal Jacket
(1987)

(SPOILERS) If there’s a problem with appreciating the oeuvre of Stanley Kubrick, it’s that the true zealots will claim every single one of his pictures as a goddam masterpiece (well, maybe not Killer’s Kiss). I can’t quite get behind that. Every single one may be meticulously crafted, but there are rocky patches and suspect decisions made in at least a handful of them. Full Metal Jacket is something of a masterpiece when set against the other ‘Nam flick released in a similar time frame, certainly. Or rather, its first half is. The first half of Full Metal Jacket can stand proud against anything Kubrick ever did. The second half… less so.


One thing that ought to be very evident up front is that Full Metal Jacket is not an anti-war movie, or one with any beef with violence generally. No film featuring as many lovingly rehearsed slow-motion deaths could be. No film in which the cathartic closure of the first (of two) act is the well-earned demise of a professional bully and aggressor could be. Besides, Kubrick already made his anti-war film, three decades earlier, and he’d have been a tad hypocritical to renege on his fascination with violence, given the cause célèbre of A Clockwork Orange, even if he did recant somewhat on the extremes he believed he’d gone to there.


What Full Metal Jacket is, is an at times brilliant study of the dehumanisation of war, and by extension the brainwashing that occurs in any oppressive system. Its accompanying drawback is that all the first-rate work in this regard is in service of the preparation for warfare, and once battle has commenced the conclusions are a fait accompli; much of what transpires could be relocated to or from any other war picture, give or take the craftsmanship on display. “How can you shoot women and children?” is a question that shouldn’t need asking.


Hartman: Those individuals showed what one motivated marine and his rifle can do.

If you want to follow the line of Kubrick exposing the machinations of the Illuminati, of course, a popular sub-sect of interest in the multiplicity of meanings his films may or may not contain, then Full Metal Jacket can be seen as his take on MK Ultra-style brainwashing (an extension of A Clockwork Orange in that regard; Jacket is as broad, heightened, cartoonish even, in characterisation as that picture), except that, rather than programming a victim unaware, Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) is conscious, even embracing previous purveyors of destruction Lee Harvey Oswald (there’s self-evidently intended irony here, since the sheer difficulty of the task at hand is the crutch of the flaw with the official story) and Charles Whitman. R Lee Ermy’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman even states, mockingly but entirely seriously, that they were great marines because the abilities they learned enabled them to expertly commit their atrocities.


Is the closing refrain of the Mickey Mouse Club song a reference to the purported programming that occurs in the innocents recruited to the Disney empire, as some adherents of Kubrick conspiracy lore would have it? Certainly, post-Eyes Wide Shut, the floodgates opened to retrospectively arriving at new, ever-more intricate readings of the director’s texts, matching their architects’ eye for minutiae; more basically, Mickey Mouse simply represents America’s misplaced sense of divine right over the world.


Such conspiratorial trains of thought may lead to some tenuous connections. One thing I can’t unsee in the picture now is Kubrick’s decision to film entirely in the UK. From basic training exercises along picturesque, rural roads (when the recruits run in slow motion in one sequence, the end credits to Dad’s Army all-but swim into view), to the London Docklands standing in for Hué, the director’s reluctance to fly or otherwise depart his adopted home country in the service of his art leads to a curious gaping hole in his perfectionism. The weather just isn’t right, and the scenery sufficiently off that no number of imported palm trees can simulate the desired effect. All of which means the attestations that Kubrick was expressly intending to depict not Vietnam but rather the US Middle Eastern wars to come a little rich. Yeah, it was pure providence that enabled him to make a Vietnam film that wasn’t really a Vietnam film that coincidentally only required the set to be an hour from home.


Admittedly, the location is largely irrelevant for the basic training section of the picture, the oppressive intensity of which allows little time for stray reflection on the surroundings. If that section is gymnastically taut, the second half is akin to slowly letting the air out of a balloon by comparison. And the opening is also blessed with three sterling performances, only one of which continues into the second half (Arliss Howard is also very good, in a subdued way, as Private Cowboy, but not nearly as significant in importance).


The film arguably secured acting careers for two of these three, and defined the career of the other; for all, it would be something impossible to equal. Ermy, the actual ex-drill sergeant putting the actors through their paces, who snagged the role through persistence and creativity with his improvised dialogue (my favourite is always “Are you about to call me an asshole?”), is a blistering powder keg of raw energy. He had to repeat all those verbally splenetic takes multiple times to his master’s satisfaction, making the achievement even more impressive.


Vincent D’Onofrio, empty-headed, slack-jawed and vacant of stare, who had to put on all that weight and never entirely lost it again, states outright that he owes his career to Kubrick, and that “I’m an actor, and I know how to take apart an M16 and put it back together blindfold”; perhaps the only aspect of Private Pyle’s trajectory that fails to entirely convince is the convenience of him being found to be really good at something (using a rifle) and that his descent into madness occurs as he is being commended for his new-found military discipline (although, this is arguably the point dramatically – it means he snaps when it is least expected).


Pogue Colonel: What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?
Private Joker: No, sir.
Pogue Colonel: You’d better get you head and ass wired together, or I will take a giant shit on you.
Private Joker: Yes, sir.
Pogue Colonel: Now, answer my question or you’ll be standing before the man.
Private Joker: I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.
Pogue Colonel: The what?
Private Joker: The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.


Then there’s Modine, whose natural wit has only rarely been tapped so effectively (Married to the Mob, offhand) and who seems wasted when he pops up in straight roles (The Dark Knight Rises). The dichotomy of Private Joker, who resists losing his humanity by keeping his sense of humour and of the absurd in check (he immediately gets into trouble with his drill instructor for making a gag at the latter’s expense) but who is also identified as not having been subjected to the religious brainwashing of his peer group (“Private Joker, do you believe in the Virgin Mary?” – “Sir, no, sir!”), which may be why he has an extra layer of humanity to see him through the battlefield. After all, Hartman, and thus Kubrick/Michael Herr, adopt a fiercely cynical discourse on religion as it relates to justifying killing and conflict (“God has a hard-on for marines, because we kill everything we see. He plays his games, we play ours. To show our appreciation, we keep heaven packed with fresh souls”).


Joker’s thematic journey is writ large, that he is actively aware of the balance he needs to maintain to survive, of the ying-yang that contrasts his peace symbol with Born to Kill plastered across his helmet (“How’s it going to look if you get killed wearing a peace symbol?” he is asked by a distractingly youthful John Terry, of Lost). But Joker can only persevere so much with barbaric tests and tribulations; he counters Hartman’s treatment of Pyle with understanding and patience, but ultimately caves in to the pressures of the system and its standards of brutalisation. Nevertheless, he mocks the army’s casual propaganda machine (instructed of an article to “Rewrite it, give it a kill” he responds with “How about a general?”) and America’s motives for becoming involved in the country’s affairs (“I, er, wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture, and kill them”), and passes the final test when others seek conformity; he kills an enemy, something he has not yet done, but as an act of compassion rather than machismo.


The “Fucking hardcore” response of Joker’s peers illustrates a wilful lack of comprehension of why he did what he did, for that too would invite compassion on their parts; it’s notable that Rafterman (Kevin Major Howard), whom Joker has chaperoned, responds to shooting the girl, in itself undermining preconditioning of the glory of righteous warfare, as if it’s something to warrant elation, a prescribed response to how his first kill should be; representing the naïve believer (almost passé even, at this point in Nam movies), he needs to wise up to reality (“Freedom? You think we waste gooks for freedom? This is a slaughter”); he remains brainwashed still. Adam Baldwin, in contrast, playing himself as Animal Mother, a creature of instinct, has no humanity left to lose (“I am become death”).


Does that make the Mickey Mouse song an indicator of Joker going with the flow, retiring from a pro-active position? Or perhaps it merely suggests that he continues to embrace the dichotomy. At one point Harman, asserts that “The marine corps does not want robots. The marine corps wants killers”. Really, they want killer robots.


Of the feature’s first section, Pauline Kael, in typically withering fashion, commented “The moviemaking suggests a blunt instrument grinding into your skull. This can easily be taken for the work of a master director”. I don’t think there’s any mistaking the skill exhibited there for anything other than the work of a master director, but there’s a feeling that persists, between this and The Shining, that Kubrick’s grasp of more overtly populist material doesn’t quite have the same virtuosity overall that he had exhibited hitherto. He failed to make a war film that reverberated as Apocalypse Now did, for example. He was on a relative back foot.


On the other hand, Abigail Mead’s score (wife Vivian Kubrick in a rare case of her husband utilising non-classically sourced music – the rest is made up of period hits, including Paint it Black, which would also become the theme of dire late night Nam TV fodder Tour of Duty, beginning the same year) is a masterfully unsettling ambient nightmare; it’s this, in particular, that informs the drained London setting of the final half, giving it a haunting, otherworldly dread and lifting Full Metal Jacket, carrying it even, until the final sniper confrontation restores momentum and focus. Of course, there’s also the little fact that even a Kubrick picture that isn’t a goddam masterpiece stands head and shoulders, and a foot or two more besides, above the very best efforts of most of other filmmakers.



Below is the trailer I remember (unfortunately this version's in German), which ended with Surfin' Bird, so it's worth a look for the last 30 seconds:



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

I’ve had enough of this 2012 Alamo bullshit.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Not The Secret Private Military Contractors of Benghazi, as that might sound dubious in some way, and we wouldn’t anything to undermine their straight-shooting heroism. That, and interrogating the politics of the US presence in Libya, official and unofficial, and involvement in the downfall of Gaddafi (Adam Curtis provides some solid nuggets in his rather sprawling HyperNormalisation), is the furthest thing from Michael Bay’s mind. Indeed, it’s a shame 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi bears the burden of being a tale based on (murky and disputed) facts, as it’s Bay’s most proficient piece of filmmaking in some time.


So, you’re not going to find out what the CIA was actually up to in their Benghazi base (most likely, the dodgiest conclusion you can reach will be the right one). You’ll only be informed that a brave team of ex-military types were there to protect them, and stepped up to the plate, just as soon as they got the go ahead (or before) when the going got bad, but too late for the US Ambassador. There’s no finger pointing at Hillary Clinton – I don’t even recall her name being mentioned – and the only references to the status of Libya come in terms of its deposed leader’s “tyrannical rule” (of whom, he “might have been an evil asshole, but he wasn’t stupid”): nothing about the culpability of those who brought the country to chaos and ruin. But then, you’d be shocked and aghast if such things were revealed in a cinematic exploration by one Michael of Bay, he who related the definitive telling of the US entrance into WWII that was Pearl Harbor.


Heroes, family men: quite simply, thoroughly decent eggs who are looking forward to getting home to see their precious wee bairns. Why, John Krasinski plays one of them (not a precious wee bairn, although he may as well be), absurdly so, since despite some ridiculously-toned abs, he only ever looks entirely miscast (he probably wanted some of buddy Matt Damon’s action cred). On the other hand, James Badge Dale, and particularly Pablo Schreiber, bring their A-games, and whatever dramatic integrity this has going for it is predominately down to them (the latter’s thorough confusion as to who may be friend or foe is very amusing, and wholly believable).


Certainly, while Bay martials the mayhem and explosions with profound technical skill, a gritty, sensitively-nuanced telling this is not. It’s always entirely evident that this is the same director that brought us Bad Boys 2, from the staging and slow motion to the musical cues, triumphant emotionalism and rousing derring do (and the propulsive car chase). This isn’t, basically, a million miles from Rambo: First Blood Part II when it comes to professing to pay respect to those in the armed forces, just with a director who isn’t George Pan Cosmatos and even more irresponsible since it purports to be factual. I suppose you could say, in its favour, that unlike Zero Dark Thirty, no one is going to foolishly mistake 13 Hours for being realistic. When one of the characters comments, “He died in a place he didn’t need to be in a battle he didn’t understand In a country that meant nothing to him” you could substitute “Bay directed a movie” for the first two words and have a fairly accurate description of the content.


He even has the temerity (or rather, screenwriter Chuck Hogan does) to have one of the leads instruct faithful interpreter Amahl (Peyman Moaadi, the only personified Libyan in the picture), “Your country’s got to figure this shit out”. Yes… Still, Bay ensures the gung-ho spirit lives on in his characters, who read Joseph Campbell – I wonder if Bay ever has – aloud (“All the Gods, All the Heavens, All the Hells are within you”), who mouth banalities (“It’s been fun, right?”) and who announce, manfully, “I walked into this country. I’m walking out”. Which is still better than Alexia Barlier’s token female, who gets to continually ask “How can I help?”) Bay may be a more technically proficient director than an unending stream of Transformers movies would warrant, but if this is what he turns himself to on his days off, he’d best stick to that particular sandpit. Safer for everyone.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split
(2016)

(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.


Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion. This is still, after all, a movie that contrives to objectify these damsels in distress, stripping them down to their tight undies on the most spurious of motives. And then offing two of them in offhand and grisly fashion (Haley Lu Richardson’s Claire and Jessica Sula’s Marcia). Although, in true genre fashion, they have it coming because they label lead protagonist Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, of The Witch) a freak in the first scene.


Casey is there to be empowered, in as much as she is a victim of child sexual abuse, just like her abductor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), although she continues to function from the mind-set of a victim, as we see through flashbacks and observe in the final scene when her uncle (Brad William Henke) arrives to collect her. The key to Casey’s survival is not her resilience, or inner strength. Rather, it is familiarity with a situation of abuse and captivity. Thus, her initial immobility is not down to the survival skills of predator and prey taught by her absent father (Sebastian Arcelus), but recognisable circumstances where she believes nothing she can do will extricate herself from the situation. So, while she shows smarts when dealing with a younger split personality (Hedwig), it takes her a long time to be proactive about her situation – the best she can offer is to suggest her fellow captives urinate on themselves to deflect the attention of the Dennis personality – by which time Claire and Marcia have been separated and neutralised.


One might, reasonably, assume this is all leading to a point of self-realisation and catharsis. But Split has, by the point of the climax, irretrievably established itself not as a discerning portrait of surviving abuse but instead a bat-shit crazy horror with the kind of psychological acumen that would be right at home in De Palma’s gloriously ridiculous Dressed to Kill, just with added supernatural monsters. As such, flashbacks to Casey’s childhood, and her uncle approaching her in the woods, are jarring (Bruce Robinson commented of his screenplay for In Dreams, which was far from executed as he intended by Neil Jordan, that “the greatest challenge… was to write a film about a paedophile and not show a child in jeopardy. That’s the essential thing. It’s a very sensitive area…”; there’s a similar sense here, watching Shyamalan incorporate such material for the most calculated of reasons). They feel tonally indiscreet, inappropriate, and because the picture is almost flippant in its disregard for genre boundaries one gets the sense that Shyamalan got rather muddled on the way to his final destination.


Shyamalan does, after all, plan an Unbreakable/Split trilogy capper. The consequence of this is that Kevin Wendell, whom the director says was a part of the original Unbreakable screenplay but who just didn’t fit, must live to fight another day, so divesting Casey of self-actualisation. Indeed, the final shot fails to even provide a confirmation that she confessed her uncle’s abuse to the waiting police officer. We can assume she did, but what’s Shyamalan’s motivation in holding back, since he holds back pretty much nothing in any other area of the screenplay, culminating in Wendell’s Beast persona feasting on the innards of Casey’s not-really friends? Such an inconclusive choice would, I’m sure, work for a different film in a different genre. Here it feels like the punishment of the type of person who (obviously in reference to the kind of movie he thinks it’s not) would breezily cameo as Jai, Hooters Lover.


Of course, there’s something rather dubiously schematic – Hitchockian? – about the director’s thinking in his philosophy of the Beast, whereby those who have suffered are regarded as more evolved. He considers that here, “You are going to get killed because you are good” rather than because you had sex. But really, what’s the difference if you’re still casting actresses who are hot? I mean, that may have been a Blumhouse ruling, but Shyamalan’s hardly giving them otherwise ground-breaking material in genre terms. And, as noted, it isn’t as if the picture is shunning tropes. The girls may be chaste (I don’t know; are they?) but they aren’t brimming with the milk of human kindness, thus in horror movie terms they deserve their fates for being mean to Casey. Most of all, though, when it comes down to it, the final act disappoints because it relies on the antagonist letting the protagonist go; nothing is required of the latter other than be acknowledged as self-harming and therefore “pure”. And, while the shared suffering of heroine and villain makes for an interesting idea, Shyamalan does nothing of consequence with it.


It’s also slightly bizarre that what criticism there has been of the picture seems to have focussed on its making villains out of those suffering from dissociative identity disorder (“DID”) sufferers rather than its dubious approach to child sexual abuse. Particularly since there’s debate over whether DID exists per se or is an artificially-produced state brought on by the treatment of the condition (now, there’s a basis for a movie).


In addition, the finale is something of a disappointment because the writer-director-consummate cameo-er has made so much of the preceding passages as a compelling, witty and often funny ride, that a standard-issue monster on the loose doesn’t really cut it. You can argue that introducing a real supernatural element is a compelling twist, but it isn’t really, not when it owes so much to the Tooth Fairy’s self-styling from Red Dragon/Manhunter. And the coda with Bruce, as Unbreakable’s David Dunn, is phenomenally geeky, but how does it serve Casey’s story? Will she feature in any significant way in the sequel? I doubt it, which goes to emphasises that the director doesn’t really give his chosen subject matter any but the most casual weight, encouraging the audience to forget his lead’s traumas as soon as he dangles a shiny, Brucey bauble before them.


These reservations are not to take anything away from Shyamalan’s consummate assuredness as a director. Nor as one with an innate understanding of structure. He’s an absolute expert at holding back and revealing, and in a movie such as this, probably the most De Palma/Hitchcock thing he’s done (even the titles are delightfully stylised) that skillset deserves all the more recognition, because it’s playing against an established yardstick and still getting props. Betty Buckley’s psychologist is straight out of “only in movies” clinicians, nursing a crackpot theory (and with only a skype conference as a nod to modernity – a scene that absolutely succeeds, even though it’s so hokey it ought to be laughed off the screen) as to its antagonist’s multiple derangement, while M Night’s visual cues for the different McAvoy personalities are straight out of his suspense master peers’ text books. Before he decides to steamroller over them for in-situ transformations.


The lure of much of the picture – no disservice to Taylor-Joy, who offers a performance of tremendous conviction, probably much more so than Split deserves – is McAvoy, and the scenes that truly crackle are those between him and Buckley (also great in the nuts but underrated The Happening), as Dr Fletcher attempts to get to the bottom of the personality presenting itself to her for analysis. McAvoy doesn’t hold back, whether it’s as a nine-year-old, a roll-necked authoritarian spinster, or sensitive fashion designer, and his willingness to go for it entirely gives the movie its must-see edge.


On the one hand, Shyamalan has succeeded in making something of a throwback homage, a picture hermetically sealed in a veritable movie-verse of eccentric psychologists and basement-dwelling psychopaths. On the other, he has come somewhat unstuck in trying to marry this to an attempt at tackling and addressing abuse survival whilst simultaneously cynically lobbing in a third ingredient of the wider Shyamala-verse (and how will Bruce fare in a proper movie, having not given a shit for so long?) If he’d succeeded, Split might have been a minor genre classic, but as it is, it’s more impressive for its director’s visual sleight of hand and its lead actor’s free-rein performance(s) than the manner in which it resorts to his past crutch of twists and revelations.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.