Sunday 19 February 2017

Split by M. Night Shyamalan

Dear, dear me. My, my, my. What do we make of M. Night Shyamalan?

He came storming onto the scene with a huge hit, The Sixth Sense (I saw the twist coming a mile off), made a couple of interesting films (I like The Village a great deal), plunged into an abyss of mediocrity (I ask you, The Last Airbender?)...

And then he managed to claw his way out of the pit with 2015's excellent The Visit.

I was really hoping that Split would continue that tendency. It's another cunning, low budget thriller which plays mind games with the audience, and its protagonists. And it begins very promisingly.

Three attractive teenage girls are kidnapped and imprisoned by a nut case. And not just any nutcase. The bad guy, played by James McAvoy, has multiple personalities. Some of whom are sympathetic to the trapped girls, and might even release them...

This is a great set up for an inexpensive suspense movie using a small cast and a limited number of sets. And Shyamalan ups the stakes by cleverly involving regular visits by the nut (it's hard to give him a name, because he has 23 of them) to his shrink, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley).

And Dr Fletcher is no dope. She begins to work out that her patient is up to no good. So the suspense is building nicely...

Amongst the kidnapped girls is Casey, played Anya Taylor-Joy, last seen in The Witch. She's terrific, and Casey is a fascinating character. She's an outcast, and in flashbacks to her childhood, where she's touchingly played by the 5 year old Izzie Coffey, we begin to learn why Casey is the way she is.

Unfortunately Casey's back story is so horrific that it unbalances the film. It is cruel and unjustified — or at best feebly justified — by the plot.

This is one of the movie's problems, but not its biggest one. Because Split is shaping towards a perfectly satisfying denouement when it goes wildly off the rails. 

You see, one of the bad guy's many personalities is 'The Beast'. And The Beast has supernatural powers. If you stab him with a knife, the knife breaks. He can crawl up walls like a gecko... Oh oh.

This spoils the movie and it's also terribly unfair on poor James McAvoy who does an amazing job of playing all the different personalities up to this point. I really think he might have been in the running for an Oscar if he hadn't started crawling up walls...

Oddly, Split goes back onto the rails at the very end. Sort of. Because Shyamalan reveals that this is in fact an origin story for a super villain and he intends to pit The Beast against his super hero from Unbreakable (released 17 years ago), played by Bruce Willis.

Okay, this is certainly audacious. And it sort of justifies Split's abrupt lurch into unreality. But it doesn't save the movie. Because how many people were waiting avidly for a sequel to Unbreakable? How many people even remember Unbreakable?

Ultimately, Split is a frustrating disappointment.

(Image credits: all the posters are from Imp Awards.)

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