Wednesday, February 8, 2017

SPLIT (2017)

Written & Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. January 23, 2017 6:05 PM

"Split", M Night Shyamalan's latest entry in the psychological thriller genre, is about a man with a big personality, several as a matter of fact. As a young child, Kevin Wendell Crumb was so emotionally abused by his unstable mother that he now suffers from dissociative identity disorder which has given him twenty-three different personalities. Crumb is played by James McAvoy who seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he convincingly zig-zags from a mild-mannered man, a nine year old boy, a colorful designer and a soft-spoken woman, doing so with impressive ease.

After several big-budgeted misfires and disappointments since his 1999 breakthrough, "The Sixth Sense", a shrewd, chilling drama involving a boy who sees dead people, Shyamalan seems to be back on the right path. While not nearly as clever or inventive as that film, "Split" gets back to basics by keeping the story simple and direct. There isn't an overly complicated plot, no dazzling visual effects and the graphic bloody gore is kept to a minimum. The director succeeds by creating tension and terror the old fashioned way through character and narrative.

At the end of her birthday celebration in a restaurant, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, recently seen in the underrated teen comedy, "The Edge of Seventeen") is stuck with Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) after all of her other guests have left. A loner and a little odd, she's a high school classmate that Claire is not really friendly with but was forced to invite. Without a ride, Claire's dad (Neal Huff) insists on driving Casey home. They all head to the car, along with Marcia (Jessica Sula), Claire's best friend, but never get very far. Everyone is drugged by an assailant and the girls are abducted.

After they've awakened in a locked small room, the girls are understandably frightened and panicked. When they meet their captor, "Dennis", a buttoned-up, nerdy-looking man, Claire and Marcia fear the worse and decide to come up with a plan to escape. Casey believes this is a bad idea, sensing something is off about him. She's proven correct when the next time they see Dennis, he is wearing a skirt and sensible heels and calling himself "Patricia". Claire and Marcia still attempt to get away but they only manage to get locked in separate rooms for their efforts. Casey tries to connect with another of the personalities, "Hedwig", a prepubescent boy, as a possible way of escape but like most kids, he's not focused or reliable.

Crumb is under the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (a wonderful Betty Buckley). While she is concerned and wants to help her poor patient, Dr. Fletcher seems a little too thrilled to have her own personal case study. "Barry", another of Crumb's personalities, reveals to the doctor a fear of another new identity called "the Beast" trying to come in to the light. He appears to be a super-human monster that is a powerful threat to all of the personalities but the doctor tries to convince him to suppress this being from taking over.

Let's be clear, at it's core, "Split" is your standard issue horror flick plaqued with the usual improbable plot elements. And like any good frightfest, the film takes sadistic glee in exploring the darker side of human nature; misogyny, child abuse, incest, mental illness and murder. Yet Shyamalan manages to bring wit, empathy and genuine emotion to this sordid affair, making the film feel far less exploitative than it really should.

Casey's past is examined during a family camping trip with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke) as a young girl. This traumatic event altered her life and helps explain some of her peculiar behavior. Taylor-Joy, mesmerizing in her turn as a Puritan teen in the eerie supernatural thriller, "The Witch", proves here she is certainly one to watch. The actress brings intelligence and a steely spirit to the role, never allowing herself to ever truly be a helpless victim.

There has been plenty of rumblings about the "surprise" ending of "Split". Less of a twist and more of a nod to one of the director's previous films, this unexpected development doesn't add much to this thriller. I think it's just the an attempt by Shyamalan to inspire new attention to a film that initially received a tepid response. Regardless, "Split" draws you in to an unsettling story filled with compassion for damaged souls seeking salvation and finding it through unorthodox redemption.