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 to 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”) 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

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either.

A Perfect World (1993) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire , a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge . But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World .