Tuesday, January 24, 2017
HOW SHYAMALAN GOT HIS GROOVE BACK: a review of "Split"
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
RATED PG 13
Ever since his cinematic breakthrough with "The Sixth Sense" (1999), Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan has spent the last 18 years being crowned nothing less than "The Next Spielberg" or "The Next Hitchcock" to rapidly free falling into becoming a Hollywood punchline due to the deteriorating quality of his work. As for me, I never really gave up on Shyamalan as he possessed a certain filmmaking aesthetic that appealed to my particular sensibilities greatly--especially as I am not a fan of horror films. His more psychological, atmospheric and multi-themed style has made his specialized brand more than scary movies with a requisite plot twist.
When Shyamalan operated at his best, which featured selections like his finest film "Unbreakable" (2000) as well as the strong "Signs" (2002) and--I still stand firmly by this one--"The Village" (2004), I thoroughly enjoyed how he mastered the art of establishing a mood and palpable tension without bludgeoning the audience in violence, overactive cinematography and audio/visual shock tactics while always delivering characters and story at the forefront.
Even with his noble misfires like his weird bedtime story "The Lady In The Water" (2006) and the goofy yet thoughtful ecological thriller "The Happening" (2008), I continued to defend him even knowing full well he was not operating at his peak--in fact, he may have been possibly trying too hard to live up to a title that had been bestowed upon him, whether honestly or arrogantly. Yet, by the time of the truly awful "The Last Airbender" (2010), Shyamalan crashed and burned so badly for me that I never even bothered to see the films that even Hollywood did not even wish to advertise his name upon. As previously stated, I hadn't fully given up on him but I had figured that perhaps his time had maybe come and gone, his best work behind him. Maybe his talents had dried up. No harm, no foul. I wouldn't ridicule him but I figured that there just wouldn't be much to look forward to either.
And then, he made "The Visit" (2015).
"The Visit," a small, quiet little potboiler featuring two young siblings spending a week within the presence of their increasingly bizarre Grandparents presented M. Night Shyamalan in a scrappier and therefore, more creatively risky, if not fully fearless, position. Frankly, the film, while not a full return to form by any means, did indeed work well, demonstrating a feeling that Shyamalan was having fun again by making a delicate thriller that merged the personal with the quirky, scary and even a bit humorously nasty.
Now, with his latest feature, the psychological thriller "Split," M. Night Shyamalan has rebounded tremendously, arriving with his finest work since his heyday and for my money, left me with a reaction that I have not felt from any film of his since "Unbreakable." Who knows? Maybe he needed to get knocked down back to Earth. Maybe he needed to get some of the stuffing kicked out of him where the only expectation anyone could have from him were to not have any at all. The pressure was off and he could devise a hell of a sneak attack for audiences and with "Split," he has succeeded greatly with yet another scrappy yet elegantly mounted production that finds the filmmaker having a blast as he is working at the near fullness of his powers weaving a dark spell that is intense, harrowing, high-flying, undeniably thoughtful and by film's end, delivers a final moment that made me want to see it all over again. Welcome back!
"Split" begins with whiplash nightmare efficiency as three teenage girls--Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and outcast Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy)--are all abducted from a shopping mall and imprisoned in an unknown subterranean locale by Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), an individual whose mind and body has been overtaken by 23 differing personalities.
As the threesome attempt to survive by navigating through Kevin's dominating personalities of the taciturn, obsessive-compulsive "Dennis," the sinister and strictly prim "Brenda," the more affable "Barry" and the 9-year-old "Hedwig," the film also stars Betty Buckley as Kevin's psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher who believes that all of the different psychological states of the personalities can possibly manifest themselves further into physical transformations--which in Kevin's case is the emerging 24th personality known as "The Beast" to whom all three girls are meant to be sacrificed.
M. Night Shyamalan's "Split" finds the filmmaker returning to near the very top of his game with a newfound confidence and joy of cinematic storytelling which has ultimately produced an experience of genuine terror, intensity, empathy, wicked humor and the very level of surprise that is lacking in most films as well as the type of surprise that made audiences fans in the first place. Additionally, I am compelled to continue sending great credit to Shyamalan for again not succumbing to a barrage of overblown CGI special effects but instead relying upon the stunning cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, the turbulent, growling score by Composer West Dylan Thordson and most definitely, the terrific sound design, where every creak and squeak of Kevin's underground lair goes a long way in building the suspense and peril of the story.
What is certainly evident to me while watching the film is that Shyamalan is clearly having a grand time just being lost in the throes of creation, and this time his inspiration and skills have not failed him as he unfurls strong characters, dialogue, and flashback sequences while carefully building up motivations as well as a creeping doom that ignites exceedingly well. Yes, the film does fly into the world of surreal lunacy--at moments, it reminded me of Ken Russell's "Altered States" (1981) or even Kevin Smith's "Tusk" (2014)--but Shyamalan remains grounded just enough to keep the horror tangible always reminding us that the danger for the three girls is terrifyingly real--kind of like Smith's exceedingly grim "Red State" (2011) or Lenny Abrahamson's "Room" (2015).
Now, at this time, I do have to reiterate how I am not a fan of horror films generally as I have never enjoyed the sensation of being scared and I often feel that the genre is more interested in ways to create gut churning visual effects and truly reprehensible torture porn rather than just creating strong stories to tell. The tactic of having women in jeopardy is also something that I have long had difficulties with as they often tend to reveal a certain sadism on the part of the filmmakers and it has long been explored within film criticism of how women exploring or expressing a certain sexuality are the ones who are punished mercilessly within the horror genre.
Now that being said, this is M. Night Shyamalan we're talking about and I do believe that the "contract" that he has placed with me and audiences in general informed me that he would have more on his mind than cheap, mean spirited thrills. For instance, Shyamalan gives us several sequences within the film exist as more cerebral matches between Kevin's personalities and his therapist--sequences that provide "Split" with a different layer of tension while also giving the audience room to breathe from the imprisoned girls. And yes, the film is indeed rated PG 13 (although, I will say that Shyamalan does take the film just to the edge of an R rating).
Having "Split" centered around three young girls in serious life-threatening danger is something that did give me a bit of a pause, but Shyamalan is clever enough to understand the history and trappings of having such a conceit and he has utilized the sick cliches of the genre to in fact comment upon them. Where some sort of sexualized history, emergence or trauma is actually treated with great sensitivity and empathy and also armed with a certain strength, ingenuity and survivalist tendency. In some ways, Shyamalan also possesses a certain empathy for Kevin and his mental illness, we can also see how he is also a victim of imprisonment but honestly, I really shouldn't say any more than that!
What I should tell you about is the sensational leading performance(s) by James McAvoy, an actor whom I have always admired but also have felt a certain sense of restraint. Well..with "Split," McAvoy is OFF THE CHAIN and he is clearly relishing the opportunity to completely let his freak flag fly high and proudly. With his shaved, eggshell like skull, McAvoy does a tremendous job personifying all of the various personalities with skill, agility and a certain sense of sinister bewilderment and tongue in check humor as well. I just marveled at his ability to switch from accents and even the subtlest of body language to signify each interior alteration of the character's increasingly unhinged mind and the effect is magnetic to regard as well as deeply frightening the longer the film continues.
James McAvoy's collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan simply fit like a hand in glove and you could easily feel each of these individuals being completely jazzed to be playing off of each other as actor and filmmaker, each inspiring the other to blaze forwards, taking "Split" to its full and stellar conclusion, which again, left me slack jawed in audible amazement. Now, I will say that while the full ending of "Split," which of course, I would never even dream to reveal, does not necessarily upend everything prior to it--we're just more clearly informed. And just as when Shyamalan accomplished his brilliant sleigh of hand with"The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," he again lays out all of his cards directly in front of you but it is with the way he lays them out--that is when he becomes a cinematic magician.
Who knows if this achievement will represent a full resurgence for M. Night Shyamalan but I am hoping that it proves to be just so for this idiosyncratic filmmaker who clearly possesses more than enough talent but seriously lost his footing for far too long. With "Split," Shyamalan stands tall once again with an exceptional thriller that legitimately excites, involves and makes you look over your shoulder more than once.