Monday, July 3, 2017

"Split" is Solid

Yeah, I realize I've made it this far into 2017 without actually reviewing a film from 2017, and I feel bad about it. Really, I do. There will be several catch-up posts coming soon. So let's start with "Split," which was a surprise hit out of the dead of January, and has been hailed as the big return to form for M. Night Shyamalan after several years of cringey action pictures and bottom-of-the-barrel horror flicks. I skipped most of these, so this is actually my first Shyamalan film since "Lady in the Water."

It's immediately apparent that "Split" was made for very little money, with a limited cast, and hardly any frills to speak of. No surprise that it's a Blumhouse production, which deals mainly in very cheap horror films. However, nobody skimped on the talent. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey, a troubled teenage girl who is kidnapped and held captive along with two classmates, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), by a man who we eventually learn is named Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin has dissociative identity disorder, and has at least 23 personalities. The one we see the most often, named Dennis, is a violent "exiled" personality who has seized control from the others with the help of a religious fanatic personality, Patricia, and a child personality, Hedwig. Kevin's psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), is the only one who suspects that something may be terribly wrong with him.

I've seen several thrillers over the years that have used a villain with dissociative identity disorder, and Kevin is one of the better ones. We can credit much of this to the go-for-broke performance of James McAvoy, who is clearly having a ball with the chance to play multiple roles. Wisely, we only see a handful of the twenty-three personalities, and none of them are particularly gimmicky, though there's a fair amount of camp and schlock. Care was clearly taken to define each of the personalities as distinct characters, who all interact differently with the girls. However, just as important is the development of Casey, our lead heroine. "Split" spends just as much time setting up her backstory with multiple flashbacks, and Anya Taylor-Joy does some excellent work getting us invested in her fate before the inevitable genre movie hijinks kick in.

As a horror movie, "Split" is not especially horrific, and the movie struggles whenever it leans too heavily on the usual horror movie tropes. However, it is a very effective, entertaining thriller and works pretty well as character drama too. It's also immediately recognizable as a Shyamalan film, with its glum Pennsylvania settings and mythologizing of its characters. There are definitely some fantasy elements in the mix, as dissociative identity disorder is essentially treated as a super power in this universe. Kevin's different personalities have different physical traits, so one is diabetic, one has OCD, and one is physically stronger than the rest. Some pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo gets trotted out by Dr. Fletcher to flesh this out, but it's thankfully not too indulgent. And there are some minor twists, but none that you could say are particularly "twisty."

And to my relief, the quality of the filmmaking is actually quite strong. Some of the concepts may be ridiculous, but they're all executed very well. The cinematography is nothing short of excellent. Shyamalan is still deft enough to get some good suspense out of the girls' escape attempts and some striking moments out of little Izzie Coffey, who plays the younger version of Casey in flashbacks. "Split" doesn't have the polish of "The Sixth Sense" or "Signs," but it's definitely operating on the same wavelength. I don't think it's too much to declare that Shyamalan is still quite capable of doing work on the same level as his earlier hits. And it's very, very good to see him still trying.

After multiple attempts last year to get more horror films into my movie-watching diet, "Split" may have finally done the trick. It's given me the itch to go look at some of the other horror films I've skipped recently - even the last few films from M. Night Shyamalan that I wrote off sight unseen. And I look forward to the inevitable "Split" sequel.

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