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

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.