Wednesday, August 16, 2017

"Split": review

"Split" is a 2016 film that represents the victorious comeback of much-maligned director M. Night Shyamalan. It stars James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and Betty Buckley. There's a cameo by Shyamalan himself (he usually appears briefly in his own films), as well as an uncredited cameo by Bruce Willis as David Dunn, the protagonist of Shyamalan's 2000 film "Unbreakable." As with the 2000 film, Shyamalan is intent on exploring the world of superheroes and superpowers, but in "Split," this is done primarily through the lens of psychotherapy. And like Luc Besson's "Lucy," a major theme in "Split" is the power of the human mind over matter.

The plot of "Split" is almost absurdly simple: three high-school girls get in a car, expecting the father of one of the girls to drive the three to their respective homes. Instead, a creepy man named Kevin Wendell Crumb (what's with all the movies about crazy people named Kevin?) slips into the driver's seat, renders the girls unconscious with a spray, then drives them to an undisclosed location, locking them seemingly deep underground. Kevin turns out to be a victim of DID: dissociative identity disorder, which until recently used to be known as multiple-personality disorder. We come to learn that Kevin is inhabited by at least twenty-three distinct personalities, one of which is seriously diabetic and in need of insulin shots. There is a rumored twenty-fourth personality, a demonic one known only as The Beast, which apparently requires the sacrifice of young girls and promises to be a liberating force for the other twenty-three personalities. The Beast's arrival is foretold by several of Kevin's personalities. In the meantime, the other twenty-three personalities take turns "in the light," i.e., acting as the dominant personality inside Kevin. Among these personalities is Dennis, who is all business and physically threatening. There's also Boston-accented Barry, who claims to control who gets to be in the light. Next is lispy nine-year-old Hedwig, who is something of a trickster. The last major personality we meet is prim, proper, British-accented Patricia. Kevin makes it easy for the viewer to know which personality is in the light by constantly changing clothes to match the personality. In the end, we never meet more than a handful of the twenty-three identities in residence.

The girls, meanwhile, begin their captivity locked in the same room together, but subsequent escape attempts force Kevin to place the girls in separate rooms. We see most of this trauma through the eyes of Casey (Taylor-Joy), who is something of an outcast. The other two girls resent Casey's apparent aloofness, not realizing that one reason for Casey's detachment is that she had been sexually abused by her uncle (Brad William Henke) during one or several family hunting trips in the woods. We see Casey's past in flashbacks.

Kevin, while manifesting Barry, regularly visits a psychiatrist named Karen Fletcher (Buckley). Fletcher is fascinated by the interplay between and among Kevin's personalities, and she also suspects that each personality somehow makes the person different in very real ways: physical stature and strength, handwriting, body chemistry (which is why only one personality needs insulin). Fletcher digs into deeper and more dangerous territory as she comes to realize that Barry, although he claims to be the executive personality deciding who gets to step into the light, is actually second fiddle to Dennis, who is not merely the executive but also the herald announcing the arrival of The Beast.

As part of my undergrad work, I took courses in general psychology and abnormal psychology, and some of the more disturbing things I recall seeing, in a psych textbook that I still own, were photos of so-called "stigmata" and about fourteen handwriting samples taken from the same person manifesting different personalities. The "stigmata" were brought about through hypnosis: the patient was taken back to a time in his or her life when s/he had been tightly bound and confined in a basement. The evocation of that time period caused the actual rope imprints to appear on the patient's wrists, redness and all. The picture showing the handwriting samples was just as disturbing: as they say, it's actually quite hard to "fake" handwriting in such a way that the fake sample looks nothing like one's normal penmanship. People usually leave traces of themselves in their attempts at fakery, but the fourteen writing samples in my textbook all convincingly looked as if they had come from completely different people. "Split" attempts to take the idea of mind-over-matter even further, suggesting that the mind can change one's body chemistry and even give a person what are effectively superpowers, like the acquisition of a hulking muscularity or the ability to climb walls in a spider-like way. This is obviously fiction, but Shyamalan does a good job of keeping the proceedings from seeming totally implausible.

That being said, "Split" was something of a mixed bag for me. The story was coherent, and the acting was fine, but the plot was rather predictable. For example, the moment I saw Karen Fletcher, the psychotherapist, I knew she had death written all over her. Fletcher was our guide and gateway into a scarier universe, but there was no doubt in my mind that, in the end, The Beast would require her life. The latter third of the movie follows a fairly standard "final girl" horror-movie template, although the dénouement is, admittedly, somewhat unexpected. Another problem was that, despite the film's slow pace and talky script, we never really got to know the other two girls in any depth, which made it obvious they were just cannon fodder.

The appearance of Bruce Willis's David Dunn means that The Beast and Dunn exist in the same filmic universe, and since I've heard of "Unbreakable" being referred to as "the first movie in an 'Unbreakable' series," I suppose this makes sense. Perhaps we'll see The Beast go up against David Dunn in a future film (assuming the film is made before Willis is too old for the role). You'll recall that Dunn's superpowers are enormous strength, inhuman physical toughness, and the ability to form psychic connections with people he touches.

Despite the predictability of "Split," Shyamalan does a good job with suspense and atmospherics, and James McAvoy gives a bravura performance as Kevin. The film was rated PG-13 in the States, so the viewer needn't worry about things becoming too gory and gruesome. Overall, I can cautiously recommend "Split." Watch it mainly for McAvoy's performance, but do expect to know the outcome well before the story is over.

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