Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

He's going to emasculate our nuclear deterrent and bring the whole damn country to its knees… because of his dreams.

Dreamscape (1984)
(SPOILERS) I wasn’t really au fait with movies’ box office performance until the end of the ‘80s, so I think I had an idea that Dennis Quaid (along with Jeff Bridges) was a much bigger star than he was, just on the basis of the procession of cool movies he showed up in (The Right Stuff, Enemy Mine, Innerspace, D.O.A.) The truth was, the public resisted all attempts to make him The Next Big Thing, not that his sly-grinned, cocky persona throughout the decade would lead you to believe his dogged lack of success had any adverse effect on his mood. Dreamscape was one of his early leading-man roles, and if it’s been largely forgotten, it also inherits a welcome cult status, not only through being pulpy and inventive on a fairly meagre budget, but by being pretty good to boot. It holds up.

The aliens are not coming, just so you know.

The X-Files 11.1: My Struggle III
(SPOILERS) Good grief. Have things become so terminal for Chris Carter that he has to retcon his own crap from the previous season, rather than the (what he perceived as) crap written by others? Carter, of course, infamously pretended the apocalyptic ending of Millennium Season Two never happened, upset by the path Glen Morgan and James Wong, left to their own devices, took with his baby. Their episode was one of the greats of that often-ho-hum series, so the comedown was all the unkinder as a result. In My Struggle III, at least, Carter’s rewriting something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Only, he replaces it with something that is even worse in the second.

I'm going to open an X-file on this bran muffin.

The X-Files 11.2: This
(SPOILERS) Glen Morgan returns with a really good idea, certainly one with much more potential than his homelessness tract Home Again in Season 10, but seems to give up on its eerier implications, and worse has to bash it round the head to fit the season’s “arc”. Nevertheless, he’s on very comfortable ground with the Mulder-Scully dynamic in This, who get to spend almost the entire episode in each other’s company and might be on the best form here since the show came back, give or take a Darin.

He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

The Shape of Water (2017)
(SPOILERS) The faithful would have you believe it never went away, but it’s been a good decade since Guillermo del Toro’s mojo was in full effect, and his output since (or lack thereof: see the torturous wilderness years of At the Mountains of Madness and The Hobbit), reflected through the prism of his peak work Pan’s Labyrinth, bears the hallmarks of a serious qualitative tumble. He put his name to stinker TV show The Strain, returned to movies with the soulless Pacific Rim and fashioned flashy but empty gothic romance Crimson Peak (together his weakest pictures, and I’m not forgetting Mimic). The Shape of Water only seems to underline what everyone has been saying for years, albeit previously confined to his Spanish language pictures: that the smaller and more personal they are, the better. If his latest is at times a little too wilfully idiosyncratic, it’s also a movie where you can nevertheless witness it’s creator’s creativity flowing untrammelled once mo…