Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In Theaters: SPLIT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Izzie Coffey, M. Night Shyamalan, Neil Huff. (PG-13, 118 mins)

While most viewed 2015's THE VISIT as a comeback for wunderkind-turned-pariah M. Night Shyamalan, I was in the minority and hated it with a near-blind fury that even LADY IN THE WATER and THE LAST AIRBENDER couldn't touch. A tardy trendhop onto the found footage bandwagon, THE VISIT was the most cynical move yet in the cratering of Shyamalan's career and I was pretty much ready to write him off for good. But now there's SPLIT, an ingenious and ambitious horror film that's easily his best work since the post-SIXTH SENSE glory days of UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS. A complex Hitchcockian mindfuck, SPLIT opens with three teenage girls--birthday girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), and quiet outcast Casey (THE WITCH's Anya Taylor-Joy)--being abducted from a shopping mall parking lot and kept in a locked room in a vast basement. Their captor is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), who suffers from an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder and has 23 personalities existing within him. The girls were kidnapped by OCD neat-freak "Dennis," and the girls soon meet the prim, proper, British-accented "Miss Patricia," who wears a dress and explains that "Dennis knows he can't touch you." "Hedwig" is an eager-to-please, nine-year-old boy who knows what Dennis and Miss Patricia are up to: the two biggest troublemakers of the 23 personalities, they've planned an internal revolt and launched a coup in Kevin's mind, with Dennis even going so far as to pretend to be the affable, laid-back amateur fashion designer "Barry," the personality who regularly represents Kevin in his appointments with psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), and the most conscientious and good-hearted of "The Horde," the collective name given to Kevin's personalities. All of this is to prepare for the coming of "The Beast," a powerful 24th personality brewing within the deepest recesses of Kevin's mind. Dr. Fletcher senses something is off about Barry in her sessions ("I'm gonna guess that you're....Dennis?" she asks at one point, and Dennis denies it) and is alarmed by the number of urgent e-mails he sends her, wanting to meet with her to warn her that something bad is about to happen but always overpowered when either Dennis or Miss Patricia step into "the light" or, the center of Kevin's head, making it necessary for Dennis to pass himself off as Barry to keep Dr. Fletcher from digging further.

Among the girls, the focus is on Casey, who elects to hang back and survey the situation before attempting to escape. Casey has no friends and was only at Claire's party because Claire felt guilty about inviting everyone in her art class but her. Casey needed a ride home and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time ("Dennis" has been stalking Claire and Marcia for days). Periodic flashbacks to young Casey (Izzie Coffey) and her relationship with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke) add depth to her character and help illustrate why she can read the situation more accurately and react to it more effectively than Claire or Marcia (sensing Dennis' germphobia and how to use it to their advantage, she advises Marcia to "pee on yourself" when she's carried into another room by Dennis, knowing he'll be too grossed out to touch her). To say anything more would risk spoilers, but SPLIT shows a Shyamalan that's rejuvenated and at the top of his game, with the film going into some disturbing places that stretch the PG-13 rating to its breaking point. SPLIT is a strange and inventive take on the psychological horror film, with a late development that has you scratching your head until a stinger early in the closing credits drops a ballsy twist that has you reconsidering the entire film from a different perspective once you realize exactly what Shyamalan has been up to for the last two hours. Shyamalan has demonstrated no shortage of arrogance and chutzpah over his career, to a detrimental degree in recent years, but the wrap-up of SPLIT is one that immediately goes down as one of the most daring and divisive that you'll see in any movie in 2017.

"Miss Patricia"



SPLIT wouldn't work nearly as well as it does without the tour de force performance of McAvoy in the most difficult role of his career. Though we only meet maybe eight of Kevin's 23 personalities, McAvoy is a sight to behold in each one, switching characters on a dime and also tasked with playing a personality impersonating another personality. He runs the gamut of emotions and acting techniques, sometimes playing to the back row as with the child Hedwig, or pursing his lips and emoting only with the slightest judgmental eyebrow arch that speaks volumes, as with Miss Patricia. The direction that SPLIT heads--and with it, Kevin's character and McAvoy's performance--requires a leap of faith from the audience that Shyamalan rewards with that reveal in the stinger. It doesn't so much change anything that happens before, but it does change your perspective on the film and what it's really doing. SPLIT isn't for everyone: it's a tad too long, Shyamalan still gives himself an annoying cameo, and some may find the extensive psychoanalytical dialogue a little too talky and clinical (though it does provide veteran actress Buckley with her most significant big-screen role in many years). Regardless, it's already going to go down as one of the strongest genre films of the year, with a go-for-broke, gives-it-everything-he's-got performance by McAvoy that's deserving of serious award consideration but will receive none. All is not yet forgiven, Mr. Shyamalan...but this is a huge step in the right direction and it's great to have you back for now.

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