Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It Came From The Cineplex: Split

Hey guys, it's finally here! It's The January/February Film Dumping Ground! Yes, it's that magical time of the year when the major studios burn off all the celluloid bombs they didn't dare release during the all-important Summer and Xmas blockbuster seasons! Awesome! Brace yourselves for two solid months of watered-down PG-13 horror films, cheap CGI kid's movies and fart comedies. It's a fantastic time to be a film fan!

Split was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Shyamalan previously wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady In The Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth and The Visit. He also wrote, but didn't direct Stuart Little (!) and Devil.


Few directors have ever had as rapid a rise and fall as Shyamalan. He got incredibly lucky back in 1999, hitting a homer his first time at bat with The Sixth Sense, which grossed over $600 million against its meager $40 million budget. 

Unfortunately he's never been able to match that first success, as each of his subsequent films has been a little worse than the last, critically as well as financially. How the hell does he keep getting work?

The Sixth Sense also pigeonholed Shyamalan as "The Twist Ending Guy," as audiences now expect no, make that demand each of his films contain a similar startling climax. Unfortunately the problem with twists is they're not hard to figure out if you're expecting one. 

After several spectacular flops in a row, Shyamalan scaled things back with 2015's The Visit, a simple, low budget, found footage horror film. Critics hailed it as a return to greatness for Shyamalan. Audiences apparently agreed, as it grossed a healthy $98 million against its minuscule $5 million (!) budget. Shyamalan was back, baby!

I thought The Visit was mediocre at best, as it was marred by its cursed found footage format, annoying child characters, a dull middle and a puzzling identity crisis (was it supposed to be funny or scary?).

Which brings us to Split. Once again, critics are falling all over themselves praising the film, calling it a triumph for Shyamalan. Get a load of these actual reviews:
"If you remember M. Night's work prior to The Happening and wished for a return to the kind of cerebral thrillers that the world was introduced to through his efforts, you're in for a treat." Kevin A. Ranson, MovieCrypt.com
"This suspenseful and unsettling thriller is a welcome return to form for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan." Tom Glassonm, Concrete Playground (whatever that is)
And my absolute favorite Split review:
"The movie's simultaneous evocation of both the depravity at work beneath society's deceptive surfaces and the inadequacy of the liberal technocratic order to defend against that depravity is the secret to its success." Richard Brody, New Yorker
Looks like somebody got a new Word A Day calendar for Xmas! What the hell does any of that even mean? Are you sure you're talking about Split here, Richard? Methinks you uploaded the wrong review.

Many critics are actually calling the film a "Hitchcockian thriller." Wait, is it "A Hitchcockian thriller" or "AN Hitchcockian thriller? Anyway, I completely agree with them. Like all of Hitchcock's movies, Split starred a group of actors who played various roles and recited lines that were written in a script. The action was shot with a camera that captured moving images onto film. These lengths of film were then edited together to form a narrative, sound effects and music were added, and the end product was distributed to theaters worldwide. See? It's just like Hitchcock's films!

Split reminds me more of Brian DePalma's Dressed To Kill, which featured a similar cross-dressing antagonist (Whoops! Spoilers!). But then DePalma's film was a thinly disguised ripoff, er, I mean homage to Hitchcock films, so I guess we're right back where we started.

In addition to the critical praise heaped onto Split, audiences have embraced it as well. So far it's grossed a whopping $101 million (and counting!) against its $9 million budget.

I just don't get it. 

Apparently I must have seen a different version of the movie than everyone else, because I thought it was mediocre at best. Let's get this straight right now Split is nothing more than an exploitation movie. The kind of cheap, sleazy, low budget schlock they used to show at drive-ins and grindhouse theaters. Sure, it's a slickly produced exploitation movie, but an exploitation movie nonetheless. 

And you know what? That's fine. I'm a big fan of schlock movies, and there's definitely room for them at the cineplex. But let's not pretend that Split is anything more than that, OK? It's classy trash at best.

I have a feeling the last ten seconds of the film are what's causing everyone to go gaga over it. It is a surprising reveal, and it actually does help the previous hour and fifty seven minutes make much more sense. But ten seconds do not a movie make, nor do they excuse everything that went before.

Everyone's also unanimously applauding actor James McAvoy's "brilliant" performance in the film as Kevin, a man with twenty four distinct personalities (even though we only get to see six or seven of them). Really? I thought he was EXTREMELY over the top. He doesn't just chew the scenery, he devours it, digests it and eliminates it before your very eyes.

To me it wasn't all that different from watching Andy Serkis arguing with himself as both Smeagol and Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings films. In fact I think Serkis did it much better. I guess seeing a man use funny voices to talk to himself is all it takes to impress folks these days. 

Joachim Phoenix was originally cast as in the film as Kevin, but was ultimately replaced by McAvoy. What a lucky break for Phoenix!

Every one of Shyamalan's film's since The Sixth Sense has contained their share of unintentional hilarity. In fact, 2008's The Happening is one of the funniest comedies of the last ten years. It kind of makes me wish Shyamalan would try his hand at an actual, real comedy. 

Lastly, I'm honestly surprised that, given the fact that we currently live in a Politically Correct Hellscape, no mental health groups have spoken up and complained about about this film. Besides featuring a psychologically ill man as the villain, it shamelessly exploits mental illness in this case DID, or dissociative identity disorder for entertainment purposes.

I have a feeling the depiction of DID in Split was so over the top and cartoonish that it flew right under the psychiatric profession's radar.


The Plot:
Teenager Claire (no last names, please) is celebrating her birthday with her friend Marcia, and classmate Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). Casey's a "bad girl," who's always getting detention in school, and Claire invited her to the party purely out of pity. When Casey's ride doesn't show up, Claire's dad insists on seeing her home safely.

The girls wait in the car while Dad loads up the trunk. The girls hear a scuffle, and suddenly a strange man named Kevin (played by James McAvoy) gets in the car and knocks out the three teens.

Casey wakes up to see that she and the other two girls are inside a windowless room with stone walls, and an oddly immaculate bathroom. Kevin enters the room, grabs Marcia and drags her out. A few seconds later he throws her back in, furious that she's peed herself out of fear. He locks the door and leaves. Claire says they need to team up and fight back, but Casey is oddly calm, saying they need more intel before they make a move that might anger their dangerous captor.

Meanwhile, Dr. Karen Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley) watches a news report about the three missing girls. Dr. Fletcher is a therapist who specializes in Dissociative Identity Disorder, aka multiple personalities. She meets with Kevin, who turns out to be her patient. Kevin suffers from DID and has twenty three distinct personalities. He speaks to her as "Barry," one of his personalities who's a flamboyant fashion designer with a Boston accent. Dr. Fletcher says he seems agitated, but he assures her nothing's wrong.

Back in the cell, the three girls try to find a way out. They look through a crack in the door, see a woman in a dress and call to her for help. The door opens and they're shocked to see the woman is really Kevin in his "Patricia" persona, complete with prim dress (!). As you might expect, this looks as ridiculous as it sounds. "Patricia" tells the girls they were captured by "Dennis," who's the protector of Kevin's many personalities. "Dennis" is incredibly strong, suffers from OCD and is a germaphobe. She assures the girls that they're fine, as she's ordered "Dennis" not to touch them.

Dr. Fletcher holds an expository Skype conference to explain DID to her colleagues and to the theatrical audience. She says she's been studying DID patients for years and believes they're "more than human," as the various personalities can actually alter the host's body chemistry and abilities. Foreshadowing alert!

The girls then meet another of Kevin's personalities named "Hedwig," who's a nine yer old boy. Casey tries to manipulate "Hedwig," telling him that he'll be in trouble with "Patricia" and "Dennis" if he doesn't help them escape. He doesn't believe her and runs away. 

The girls try to find a way out of their cell. Claire finds a hollow spot in the ceiling, and tears the drywall away with her shoe. She finds a conveniently human-sized Movie Air Vent™ and crawls through it. She drops down into another room and begins running through a large underground complex. Unfortunately she's captured by "Dennis." He takes Claire to a separate room, orders her to take off her now soiled top, and locks her in.

The next day "Barry" meets with Dr. Fletcher again (I think it's the next day, but it's not really clear how much time passes in this film). She says she believes she's really talking to "Dennis," since he keeps straightening things ("Dennis" has OCD, remember?). She mentions Kevin's twenty three distinct personalities and asks if they're all OK. Kevin admits that he's currently "Dennis," and says there's a twenty fourth personality called "The Beast," who's coming soon. One would think this would scare the crap out of Dr. Fletcher and she'd immediately call the police, but no.

Kevin returns home, becomes "Patricia," lets Casey and Marcia out of their cells and fixes them lunch. While she's occupied, Marcia hits "Patricia" in the back with a chair and runs out of the room. "Patricia" orders Casey back to her cell, catches Marcia and separates her from the others.

"Hedwig" visits Casey and talks about his music collection and his CD player, which he says is next a window. Intrigued, Casey sweet talks him into showing her his room so she can escape. She's disappointed when she sees the "window" is just a drawing. She sees he has a professional walkie-talkie, grabs it and calls for help while trying to fight off "Hedwig." A man answers, but unfortunately thinks Casey's pulling a prank. "Hedwig" subdues Casey.

Casey flashes back to a hunting trip she took with her dad and uncle when she was five. During the trip, her dad teaches her how to shoot a rifle (!). Later, in the movie's creepiest and sleaziest scene, her uncle takes her into the woods by himself and strips down to his underwear. He tells Casey to strip as well, so they can "pretend to be animals." Yikes! Cut to her uncle putting his clothes back on, as Young Casey points a rifle at him. He manages to take it from her before she can shoot him. This abuse subplot is presumably the movie's reason why Casey's a "bad girl."

Unnerved by their last meeting, Dr. Fletcher goes to Kevin's house and is greeted by "Dennis." She realizes he's the one responsible for kidnapping the three girls. She tells "Dennis" she has to use the restroom and excuses herself. She hears Claire calling for help, but "Dennis" knocks her out before she can rescue her.

"Dennis" runs to a train car in the seemingly vast underground complex, and transforms into "The Beast." His body physically changes and he becomes taller and more muscular, covered with unsightly veins. He can also somehow crawl around on walls and ceilings, just like Spider-Man (!). He returns to find Dr. Fletcher's awake, groggily writing something on a paper. She tries to stab him with a small kitchen knife, but it breaks on his impenetrable skin. He then squeezes her to death, which I guess is a thing that can happen.

Casey wakes up and tries to free the other two girls. She unlocks Marcia's room, but sees her stomach's been ripped open by "The Beast." She opens Claire's room and sees "The Beast" drag her away as organs start flying. She runs to the kitchen, where she finds Dr. Fletcher's body, along with the note she scribbled, which reads, "Say his name— Kevin Wendell Crumb." Apparently hearing his true name will cause Kevin to resume full control of his mind and body.

"The Beast" enters and heads toward Casey. She shouts his name over and over and sure enough, he reverts back to Kevin. He doesn't remember anything from the last few days, and is truly horrified when Casey tells him he's just killed Clair, Marcia and Dr. Fletcher. He tells her where to find a shotgun, and begs her to kill him. Casey grabs the rifle and runs as "The Beast" resumes control.

Casey finds a box of shotgun shells in a locker, and loads the gun. She runs down a corridor that turns out to be a dead end. "The Beast" crawls toward her on the ceiling, knocking out lights one by one so she can't see him. He attacks, tearing her shirt and slashing her leg. 

She gets away and locks herself in a conveniently located cage (?). She shoots twice at point blank range, but the shells don't phase "The Beast." He starts bending the bars of the cage to get to her, until he sees that Casey has multiple scars on her arms, legs and torso, where she's apparently cut herself (as a form of self-abuse) over the years. "The Beast" stops and declares that Casey is "pure hearted," whatever the hell that means. I guess he sees her as a kindred spirit, because she's damaged just like him? He then scampers away. Wait, was... was that the Patented Shyamalan Twist?

Later a security guard finds Casey in the cage and takes her outside. She sees she's been held captive beneath the Philadelphia Zoo, where Kevin presumably worked. We see Kevin off somewhere by himself, as "Dennis," "Patricia" and "Hedwig" now have permanent control of his body. "Patricia" says "The Beast" will protect them all from now on.

Cut to a diner, where people are watching a news report about Kevin, who the media has dubbed "The Horde." A customer very awkwardly says, "This reminds me of a news story I heard fifteen years ago, about a man in a wheelchair. The reporters called him a funny name too, but I can't remember what it was." David Dunn, the hero of Shyamalan's 2000 film Unbreakable, is sitting next to the woman and answers, "Mr. Glass."

GASP! Kevin exists in the Unbreakable universe!

• Since it's federally mandated that every Shyamalan film must have a twist, I spent the entire runtime of Split trying to figure out its big plot revelation.

Split actually features two twists. The first is pretty lame, and comes when "The Beast" sees that Casey apparently cuts herself for attention. He then sees her as a kindred spirit, stops trying to kill her and scampers away.

Note that this is cribbed almost EXACTLY the utterly ridiculous "Our Moms Are Both Named Martha" reveal in Batman V Superman. Oy.

The second twist comes in the last ten seconds of the film, when we see David Dunn, the hero of Shyamalan's Unbreakable, sitting in a diner watching a news report about Kevin.

This was a much better little twist, as it came completely out of nowhere and neatly links the two films. In fact, as I said earlier, this revelation actually makes Split a (slightly) better film.

Up until the very end, Split was very cartoonish, especially in the way it depicted mental illness in general, and DID in particular. Dr. Fletcher's theory that a DID patient's various personalities could alter the host's body chemistry was very comic-booky, and made it hard to take the movie seriously.

Now we know why! Split is set in the "realistic" comic book world of Unbreakable. The entire movie is a supervillain origin story! 

This makes the outrageous events of the film a little easier to swallow, but unfortunately it can't save it completely. Movies need more than ten good seconds to be considered great.

 As soon as I saw that Casey had been abused as a child, I was sure I had the twist figured out. I thought, "Aha! We'll find out that she has DID too, and one of her personalities will have a superpower just like Kevin. Then we'll see the two of them use their powers to fight to the death."

Sadly, that didn't come to pass. I like my idea much more than the one we got though.

• Anya Taylor-Joy did an amazing job in 2015's The V V Itch (a film I've grown to appreciate more on repeat viewings), which was her feature film debut. Since then, she's gone on to star in the execrable Morgan and now Split. She needs to start picking better projects or find a new agent, stat. She can't coast on The V V Itch's goodwill forever.
If she's not careful she's gonna end up battling bad CGI sharks in Siffy Channel movies.

• I'd have been more receptive to McAvoy's performance if he hadn't insisted on wearing a different outfit for each of Kevin's personalities. Yes, you heard right every time one of Kevin's personalities takes control, he dashes offstage and changes clothes before returning and speaking in a new, unconvincing accent. 

It was especially hilarious when Kevin appeared as "Patricia," decked out in tight-fitting sweater, prim, pleated skirt and heels. I'm sure the sight of him dressed that way was supposed to be terrifying, but it was unintentionally hilarious. I honestly couldn't stop laughing.

McAvoy gives each of Kevin's personalities their own gestures and body language, which made the costume changes unnecessary in my opinion. I think it would have been much more effective if, when Kevin changed from "Hedwig" to "Patricia," he simply straightened his posture, pulled his mouth into a thin, unforgiving line and threw out a disapproving look.

I'm assuming the costume changes were there for the dimmer members of the audience, so they'd know which of Kevin's many personalities they were watching. 

• M. Night Shyamalan really needs to stop making cameos in his movies. I assume he does because he thinks he's the next Alfred Hitchcock, who often made appearances in his own films as well. The difference is Hitchcock knew he wasn't an actor, and just make quick little appearances in the background of his films. Plus he was, you know, talented. For some reason Shyamalan insists on giving himself major speaking roles in his films, which invariably drag me right out of the movie.

• As you might expect, the portrayal of DID in this film has little or nothing to do with reality. Doctors believe that body chemistry can be altered with the mind, but those chemicals can't alter a person's personality.

I get the impression Shyamalan probably watched an A & E documentary on DID, only half paid attention to it while diddling with his phone and thought, "That's it! There's my next movie!"

• Dr. Fletcher has to be the worst psychiatrist in the history of the profession. She shamelessly exploits Kevin's condition to further her own career, believing he's somehow the next step in human evolution. She also consistently ignores blatant warning signs from him, refusing to call the police when it's obvious he's a danger to himself and others. As far as I'm concerned she got what she deserved.

• Kevin apparently lives in the same world as David Dunn of Unbreakable. Is Shyamalan trying to set up his own little cinematic universe here, and get in on some of that sweet, sweet franchise money? What are we gonna call it? The Unbreakableverse? The Shyamalnverse?

So what's next? Will Shyamalan write and direct Unbreakable 2, featuring David Dunn fighting the Horde? How will Casey fit into this? Will she be David's sidekick? Stay tuned!

Split could have been a decent little thriller, but it's marred by an over the top performance by star James McAvoy, and like all of M. Night Shyamalan's films, is riddled with unintentionally hilarious moments. Despite what the critics would have you believe, this is nothing more than a slickly-produced exploitation movie. Might be worth a look on cable, but not a trip to the cineplex. I give it a C.

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