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

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

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…

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

You've already met Judy.

Twin Peaks 3.15: There’s some fear in letting go.
Just two episodes ago, Big Ed was nursing a solitary late night cup-a-soup and looking as if nothing could ever come right. And even here, it seems as if, having finally been finally let off the leash by Nadine, he’ll be reduced to a coffee and cyanide. So the reparatory hand on his shoulder, signalling Norma is ready to be there with him for evermore, seems too good to be true. I’m wary that Lynch and Frost won’t just pull the rug from under them, and how long Nadine, who thanks to Dr Amp shows no fear in letting go, will remain in her golden, shovelled-up state.

I particularly enjoyed Wendy Robie’s delivery of “But I’ve been a SELFISH BITCH to you all these years”, and several of the characters here – Nadine, Big Ed, Hawk – are proving much more effective in this second wind of the series than they ever did first time round. Michael Horse has a great face for stoic rumination now. But not a horse face. 

Hawk’s phone conversations – I …

Don’t get tipsy. We can’t have you hiccoughing in the coffin.

The Avengers 4.2: The Murder Market
Tony Williamson’s first teleplay for the series picks up where Brian Clemens left off and then some, with murderous goings-on around marriage-making outfit Togetherness Inc (“Where there is always a happy ending”). Peter Graham Scott, in his first of four directing credits, sets out a winning stall where cartoonishness and stylisation are the order of the day. As is the essential absurdity of the English gentleman, with Steed’s impeccable credentials called on to illustrious effect not seen since The Charmers.

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

This is hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour.

Lock Up (1989)
Sylvester Stallone’s career was entering its first period of significant decline when Lock Up was flushed out at the tail end of his most celebrated decade. His resumé since Rocky includes a fair selection of flops, but he was never far from a return to the ring. Added to that, his star power had been considerably buoyed by a second major franchise in the form of John Rambo. For a significant chunk of the ‘80s he was unbeatable, and it’s this cachet (and foreign receipts) that has enable him to maintained his wattage through subsequent periods of severe drought. Lock Up came the same year as another Stallone prison flick, Tango & Cash, in which the actor discovered both his funny guy chops (resulting in an ill-advised but mercifully brief lurch in to full-blown comedy) and made a late stage bid to get in on the buddy cop movie formula (perhaps ego prevented him trying it before?) The difference between the two is vast. One is a funny, over-the-top, self-consciously bo…