Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 21, 2017 5:34 pm 
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Shyamalan redeems himself - sort of

M. Night Shyamalan has one of his first successes in quite a while with his dark, exciting new movie Split, where a demented man with 23 personalities (we only see eight, all played by the virtuoso actor James McAvoy) kidnaps three pretty young women and holds them prisoner in a vast underground cellar until the surprise ending. After nearly fifteen years of disappointments, this movie arrives without all the hype (and impossible comparisons to Spielberg and Hitchcock) that dogged Shyamalan's early footsteps. Rumor has it that Shyamalan has already been redeeming himself recently with the TV series "Wayward Pines" and his 2015 "sleeper hit" The Visit, but I haven't seen those, and The Visit was a critical flop. Anyway, Split, while no masterpiece, pretty much works. It's a flat-out scary movie, and can be taken, and enjoyed, as such. It's completely nuts, a carnival ride, full of thrills and chills, and hopefully, surprises.

This is no in-depth psychological study. In fact from the psychotherapist's viewpoint, it's worse than misleading. But blowing up and demonizing split or multiple personality, or dissociative identity disorder (DID), as it's now known, is hardly new in the world of pop fiction. It's always been taken as a great opportunity for lurid contrasts, and for actors to show off. The classic in this vein is Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, which has been seen in dozens of forms. Recently (2009-11) we've been treated to Toni Collette in "The United States of Tara," with a suburban housewife attempting to raise kids while coping with multiple personalities, a TV series playing the disorder for comedy. Split plays it for menace, and gives McAvoy the chance to inhabit eight personalities (and bodies), Kevin Wendell Crumb AKA Dennis / Patricia / Hedwig / The Beast / Barry / Orwell / Jade - the selection we're given from the 23 personalities his character reportedly embodies. Shyamalan makes some use of actual information about DID, such as that it can be traced to childhood trauma, and that different personalities can exhibit remarkable physical differences, abilities, and disabilities. But Split demonizes the disorder, as in the past.

We're trying to keep track of this wild array, but we're also, of course, worrying about the three kidnapped girls. At the outset we see them stolen when the father of one of them is just about to drive them home after a birthday party. In the foreground (and the front seat) is Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy). She's a loner misfit, but that seems to help her. We see why partly from her memories, seen in a succession of flashbacks to when she was a little girl, when she suffers abuse, but also is learning survival skills, as she is taught hunting with a rifle at a ridiculously early age. Less clearly defined are Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), who mainly pump up the scary-movie tension by doing a lot of panting and heavy breathing. The kidnapper (McAvoy with nearly shaved head and buttoned up dark shirt) is Dennis, the first we see embodying the body of Kevin, an OCD character who wields a knockout spray can and is obsessively neat. (There is eventually a flashback to a childhood trauma Kevin experienced, too.)

In the course of things a third major thread (after the kidnapping and the flashbacks) consists of meetings between one of the personalities, Barry, a gay man with a New York accent and an interest in fashion, and his psychotherapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Broadway and movie veteran Betty Buckley), who knows about Kevin's other personalities. Barry, the personality who's supposed to be in charge, has sent worried emails asking for special sessions, but next day, in person, pretends everything's okay. Dr. Fletcher knows how to deal with the different personalities at once, but she becomes increasingly alarmed, particularly at the idea that there is a 24th personality, known as The Beast, hovering over the others. The movie juggles back and forth among the personalities, the girls, Dr. Fletcher, and the flashbacks. It's enough to keep the viewer busy. But it tries too hard. Something is lacking, such as a coherent manipulation of the kidnapping story. It seems a wonder that Shyamalan arrives at any kind of conclusion. But he does that by relying on crime-story convention and making effective use of actual locations in his home town, Philadelphia.

What's crazy about this? It blends a psychological study with a crime thriller, over-stressing and under-developing both elements. Movie bad guys (like Hannibal Lector) are often demented, but what's going on in Kevin, et al.'s head or heads and body or bodies would be enough for a movie. The demented concept Shyamalan sells us, should we agree to accept it, is that all these personalities are somehow both in cooperation - even to allowing a terrible crime to happen, the kidnapping, and its consequences - and at war with each other. The plot never really decides. It doesn't have to, so long as it keeps moving, and ignores logic. We always have the thespian pyrotechnics of James McAvoy to divert us, as well as those of Betty Buckley, and to a certain extent the relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy, who starred in last year's much-admired period horror film The Witch.

A word about McAvoy. He's a talented guy, but this isn't his best role - or roles. He works hard; but that's the trouble. He has to work too hard: he's not given enough to work with. Nobody is. Compare this with Alec Guinness in the Ealing Studios classic Kind Hearts and Coronets. Not only does he have the leisure to present each of the eight characters (all related by blood) of the D'Ascoyne family, but different costumes to wear, and wigs, which helps a lot when a man is playing women. McAvoy barely gets costume changes, has the same shaved head all the time, and is rushed from one personality to the next. It may be fun to see the switch happen almost within a single sentence, but they become a blur. They don't show the acting chops in the best light. He falls back too often on mannerisms, like his tendency to grin and giggle. But Shyamalan has avoided the longeurs and spiritual pretensions that marred other work of the last decade.

Split, 117 mins., debuted Sept. 2016 (Fantastic Fest) and Nov. 2016 (AFI Fest). US theatrical release 20 Jan. 2017. Metacritic rating: 64%. The Times's A.O. Scott wrote an excellent and informative review. The Guardian has a good piece by Steve Rose about popular treatments of DID and why they tend to fail. He also mentions "Mr. Robot." I didn't realise that Elliot was an example, but of course he is.

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