Friday, January 20, 2017

Split: This uneven thriller should do just that

Split (2016) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and rather generously, for dramatic intensity, violence and gruesome behavior

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.20.17

Color me surprised.

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s newest little shocker truly is a cut (or chomp) above his other recent efforts.

While Marcia (Jessica Sula, left) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) watch nervously in the
background, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) attempts to persuade their captor's (James McAvoy)
youngest personality to help them escape from his other, more vicious selves.
But since we’re talking about the guy responsible for Lady in the Water (unrelentingly silly), After Earth (jaw-droppingly awful), The Visit (utterly repulsive) and The Last Airbender (quite possibly the worst mainstream fantasy ever made) ... that’s damning with very faint praise.

It must be difficult to hit a stadium-clearing home run the first time at bat — as with, say, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and John Carpenter (Halloween) — and then spend the rest of a steadily declining career trying to top, or even match, that first triumph. Pursuing that rainbow destroyed Welles, and has turned Carpenter into a pathetic remnant of his former self. (Anybody remember Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Prince of Darkness or Ghosts of Mars?)

Thus, pity poor Shyamalan, forever toiling in the shadow of The Sixth Sense.

Since then, he has demonstrated an unerring knack for concocting an intriguing premise, failing to exploit it credibly, and then flushing away any marginal good will during a bonkers-ludicrous third act.

Split follows that pattern; its modestly saving graces are a better-than-usual starting point, and a bravura performance from his leading man. (Or should I say performances?)

Shyamalan wastes no time, opening with a frighteningly credible kidnap scenario that leaves high school teenagers Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) at the mercy of an eerily calm guy (James McAvoy) with a shaved head and military bearing. The girls wake up in a basement cell, albeit one appointed with an unexpectedly clean and polished bathroom.

Claire and Marcia, best buds, are among the most popular girls at school; Casey is the quiet outcast everybody whispers about. Thus, the savage separation of status prevents the trio from bonding into a proper team (a shrewd psychological handicap).

Their captor’s various tics include an obsessive/compulsive fixation on neatness; he’s also a sexual deviant, as evidenced by a brief but distasteful encounter with Marcia (mercifully left off-camera).

When not terrorizing his captives, this fellow turns up for sessions with long-time therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Tony Award-winning stage actress Betty Buckley, also forever immortalized as the sympathetic gym coach, in 1976’s Carrie). His persona here is completely different: cheerful, artistically inclined and clearly in touch with his feminine side. Dr. Fletcher knows him as Barry, a would-be clothing designer.

But she also knows him as the taciturn, crisply efficient Dennis: definitely the guy who we watched kidnap the girls. (Not that Dr. Fletcher knows anything about that.)

Via occasional glimpses into the good doctor’s activities, after her patient departs, we learn that Dennis and Barry are but two of 23 (!) personalities residing within the same physical frame. Talented as he is, that likely would have been too much for McAvoy; the film grants us lengthy glimpses of only two others: the sweepingly regal and schoolmarmish Patricia, and buoyant 9-year-old Hedwig.

Unseen changes of clothing play a role in McAvoy’s distinct performances, but the transformations owe most of their persuasive power to his acting chops. Steely eyed Dennis is chilling, with a preternaturally calm reserve that barely keeps coiled rage in check; the irrepressible Hedwig is a gleeful hoot, bringing uneasy comic relief to a situation that keeps getting worse.

Casey is the only interesting member of the captured trio; Richardson and Sula do little to elevate their characters beyond genre-typical Frightened And Mostly Helpless Victims. But Taylor-Joy brings considerable depth to Casey; interesting stuff takes place behind her eyes, and she’s clever enough to attempt manipulative interactions with their captor’s various selves. For a time, that’s quite intriguing.

Then, thanks to “bad behavior,” the girls get separated, leaving us to spend most of our time with Casey (not a bad thing). Occasional flashbacks to her childhood — Izzie Coffey quite striking, as the girl’s 5-year-old self — reveal a doting father (Brian Gildea) and her Uncle John (Brad William Henke), the latter clearly much too interested in his niece.

Yep: This story is filled with all sorts of unhealthy relationships.

Shyamalan deserves credit, up to this point, for using numerous elements — shadowy corridors, tight close-ups, McAvoy’s performance, disturbing sound effects and West Dylan Thordson’s sinister score — to enhance our growing unease. No question: By the end of the first hour, we’re well and truly anxious on behalf of these young women.

And then — so frustrating! — Shyamalan pushes things too far, and loses control of his film.

The reasons are varied. The protracted third act becomes butt-numbing; at just shy of two hours, this film is at least 20 minutes too long. We lose patience with both Dr. Fletcher and the girls, given their inexcusable stupidity.

The former, despite the sharp observational skills that she constantly boasts about, has the self-preservational perception of a walnut. The girls, whether collectively or individually, lose numerous opportunities to overpower their captor, particularly when in his weaker Hedwig persona.

Mostly, though, we throw up our arms because Shyamalan introduces a sci-fi element in order to justify the threat posed by a possible 24th persona, whose existence is dismissed by Dr. Fletcher (more fool she). This twist turns on one of the more controversial aspects of those who suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder: the pseudoscientific suggestion that different personas exhibit entirely unique biochemistries. Thus, one of Dennis/Barry’s selves is diabetic; the others are not.

That being the case, might it be possible for a dominant personality to wholly re-shape his body, through sheer force of will ... thus becoming the nightmarish “beast” discussed with reverence by Dr. Fletcher’s patient?

Just like that, we enter cloud-cuckoo land. Waiter, bring me the check; I’m outta here.

By this point, other issues also have become irritating, starting with the aforementioned tight close-ups; we need not count McAvoy’s nose hairs, in order to appreciate the skill with which he slips from one persona to another. Various heinous acts also take place in complete silence, when shrill, piercing screams most certainly would have been the order of the day.

And while I’ve never admired films that wallow exploitatively in gore, there’s simply no question that this premise demanded an R rating, and would have benefited from more horrifying tableaus, rather than the eye-blink cutaways employed to preserve a “family friendly” PG-13. Which, in turn, creates its own problem: When did that rating expand to encompass on-camera cannibalism?

On top of which, Shyamalan leaves us with a wholly unacceptable finale, on at least two levels. (The need to avoid spoilers prevents further comment on same.) He seems more interested in self-referencing an incident from Unbreakable, his 2000 follow-up to Sixth Sense. (This works because Split, like many of his films, also is set in Philadelphia.)

Nor should we overlook the cutesy cameo Shyamalan gives himself, as one of Dr. Fletcher’s researchers.

That’s another problem with Shyamalan’s recent efforts. He’s neither talented enough, nor respected enough, to get away with such self-indulgent, nod-and-wink non-sequiturs. I can’t imagine why studios keep financing his films. How many turkeys can one man deliver, before his director’s license is taken away?

Yes, Split has its moments. But that doesn’t make it much more than a two-hour test of patience, nor will it do any business in these doldrums of January.

It’s just another nail in the coffin of Shyamalan’s once promising career.

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