Thursday, February 16, 2017

Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)


M. Night Shyamalan's Split as of this writing has taken in some $115 million in the United States and $172 million worldwide, all the sweeter considering the minuscule $9 million production budget involved (mostly self-financed), the years of commercial failure and critical abuse the filmmaker suffered.

So Shyamalan's back in a big way, and the question on all our minds is this: what have we bought into/welcomed back/re-created this time, exactly?

His last film The Visit was actually a fairly well-made thriller (arguably the best of the by-now almost completely degraded 'found-footage' genre) and impressive box office earner (with a budget of $5 million, any return over twenty would have been impressive)

Split is roughly in that mold. Three young girls--Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are kidnapped by a dour man with shaven pate who calls himself Dennis (James MacAvoy). Dennis suffers from an extreme form of Dissociative Identity Disorder and has at least twenty-three personalities, of which we see a handful. Mention is made of a 24th personality called "The Beast"--him you apparently don't want to meet outside of a locked steel cage with shotgun ready
Shyamalan does several smart things: he takes the time and effort to introduce us to the three girls, then to Dennis and his several other personalities (Patricia, a courteous host and stylish dresser; Hedwig, nine years old and not a little creepy; Barry, a gay fashion designer (Stereotype much?)). We also meet Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who has been treating Dennis/Barry/Patricia/Hedwig, and wondering why Barry has been asking--urgently, desperately--to meet with her.

Aside from the visits to the therapist most of the movie takes place in the warren of rooms that Dennis (we'll stick to this name for the sake of convenience) apparently calls home. We get glimpses of a larger institution--old brick buildings, high iron gates--but can't quite pinpoint the place other than somewhere in Philadelphia (Shyamalan was born in the Keystone State, and has set most of his features there). 

It's an evocative setup. The sealed chambers and dank corridors represent Dennis' mind, full of twists and hidden corners; the camera's often canted angles and use of closeups evoke a sense of unrelenting claustrophobia (with rooms carefully lit to emphasize the grey cement walls). Dennis himself recalls any number of film and literary figures, from Dr. Henry Jekyll to Norman Bates to Dr. Carter Nix--representing the astonishing ability of the human mind to respond and adapt to trauma.

Helps that Shyamalan went so far as to research the condition with some thoroughness: calling it by its latest name instead of 'multiple personality;' showing Dr. Fletcher working with her patient not to resolve the split but allow Dennis to function with or without an integrated personality (it's the latest thing apparently). Helps that Fletcher is that rare character, a brave resourceful caring doctor with wit enough to suss out what Dennis is really up to. She seems genuinely concerned for her patients, speaking of their condition as not debilitating but empowering, thinking of each persona as being not just mentally but physically different (to the point of suggesting that the condition doesn't just create different personalities but different bodies). Of course when Fletcher finally confronts Dennis about his secret he throws what she's been saying all along right back at her; it's Buckley's finest scene, the dismay on the doctor's face when she realizes just how much her words have been perverted to serve yet another ubermensch philosophy (think James Stewart hearing his students near the end of Rope or, looking further back, Dr. Victor Frankenstein debating with his creature). 

It helps that Marcia and Claire while frightened do fight back, and at one point improvise an escape plan. It helps that Casey, smartest of the three youths, is patient enough to bide her time and chat up Hedwig, the most vulnerable of the personalities. These plot threads are not insignificant; Shyamalan subverts the stereotype of the malevolent male serial killer and his helpless female victim by giving the would-be killer a history of abuse (shown in terrifying flashbacks), giving his victims the ability to figure things out (or in Fletcher's case figure Dennis out) for themselves.

All crackerjack-crispy filmmaking right up to the point when (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to see the movie!) The Beast makes his appearance. Instead of the implied superman who just might transcend his animal instincts (think Dr. Frankenstein's aforementioned creature, gifted with both literacy and eloquence) Shyamalan's turns out to be your standard-issue subarticulate carnivore, albeit with the powers of Spider-Man, Wolverine, and X-Men's Beast combined. The narrative collapses into a mere chase picture with rather tepid conclusion ("Her heart is pure! The damaged are more evolved!"). Is Casey's heart really more evolved because she's been abused? Would be nice to think so, but where does this leave the other women? And why raise the question of purity yet again, the determinant issue in most every slasher film (See: The Final Girl)?

Shyamalan has ended up cornered like this before: in The Visit he imagined the world's most uncomfortable family outing, grandkids staying with grandparents for the first time because mother wants to go on a cruise with her boyfriend (Puritanical much?). The fact that the kids badly want to like their grandparents who are (to put it mildly) odd sets up all kinds of muddled expectations ambivalent disappointments emotional crosscurrents that would have been fascinating to untangle; instead Shyamalan opts for yet another Hansel-and-Gretel Gingerbread House horror flick, complete with corpses in the basement

Avoiding the simplifications that come with thrillers might mean less boxoffice--but remember the budget was at most ten million. If Shyamalan had really followed through on his concept he might have ended up with 1) a more modest success but also a 2) more interesting (not to mention mature) work, and 3) a film less vulnerable to accusations of exploiting women in general, exploiting victims of Dissociative Identity Disorder in particular. 

Which is Shyamalan's real problem I think. He came up with a fairly original debut feature in The Sixth Sensewhere a child sees dead people (liked the way he staged his scares, less fond of the cliched sound effects). Unbreakable is arguably my favorite, an atmospheric little Gothic piece about a man's gradual realization of his true nature. Ever since a pattern has been established: intriguing premise, inventive developments, tension wound up to maximum; then something snaps--the characters are suddenly less intriguing, the action less inventive, the film falls apart and becomes, well, a mere horror thriller. Because that's what Shyamalan does, horror thrillers; it's what's expected of him. 

Split is an entertaining enough diversion but hardly equal to the unwholesome demented fun offered by Raising Cain, filmmaker Brian De Palma's take on Dissociative Identity. Where Shyamalan rings a few clever changes De Palma piles on crazed plot twists; where Shyamalan sprinkles a handful of Hitchcockian POV shots for style De Palma drenches his, borrowing not just from Hitchcock but Ophuls Welles Eisenstein. The style helps: since De Palma's world is clearly not realistic--is if anything gleefully unrealistic--his picture is easier to dismiss, hence easier to excuse (helps that the film pins its single most monstrous act not on Cain but his father, who created Cain through a series of carefully orchestrated childhood traumas (shades of Powell's Peeping Tom)). 

And where Shyamalan loses out on visuals to De Palma he loses even more to Hitchcock's slower and even more precise construction of character--think of the shock one felt when near the end of Psycho the police officer delivers a blanket offscreen and we hear the deep feminine voice reply "Thank you." We'd heard the voice before, but this is the first time we hear it with character totally unveiled--Bates' mother living beyond death in her son's mind.

Interesting (again skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) that Split's final scene links back to Unbreakable, the suggestion put out that maybe just maybe Shyamalan intends to create his own lower-budget more violent super-hero universe, where physical and mental aberrations become the basis of superpowers (Come to think of it The Horde and Unbreakable's Mr. Glass' are based on actual conditions; what's the basis of David Dunn's?). Not perhaps the most fruitful direction to take one might argue--but it's his choice, his career, his favorite genre. You think of the director trapped in one of his own basements, scratching at doors, running down corridors, trying to flee the trap he's set for himself. You hope he makes it; you're unconfident he will   

First published in Businessworld 2.9.17

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