Monday, January 23, 2017

Hedwig and the angry witch


There's fun to be had, albeit in the sense that there's usually a certain kind of "fun to be had" from sitting through any M. Night Shyamalan film.  Sometimes, however, he seems like he's even in on the joke here, and that's when Split is pretty good.  But then, sometimes, he is the joke.  And that's when Split is very, very bad.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
With Anya Taylor-Joy (Casey), Haley Lu Richardson (Claire), Jessica Shula (Marcia), Betty Buckley (Dr. Karen Fletcher), and James McAvoy (Kevin... et cetera)

Spoiler alert: moderate

There has probably never been a career quite as mystifyingly invincible as M. Night Shyamalan's, whose reputation, almost twenty years later, still depends almost totally upon the one-shot masterpiece of The Sixth Sense.  Now, I myself retain a certain fondness for Unbreakable, but the fact remains that every subsequent picture he made saw him shedding admirers like cat hair in summer, and, at a certain point—precisely when depends upon whom you ask—the man became the most iconic laughingstock of our modern era, going from his generation's Alfred Hitchcock to its Ed Wood in hardly any time at all.  To my mind, the point he went from promising to plague-ridden came early indeed.  For I will never understand how anyone was able to get onboard with Signs, which I still strongly suspect is his worst screenplay (it might be, literally, "the worst screenplay").  Yet, having experienced both Shyamalan's hack-adapation of The Last Airbender, and his most widely-loathed auteur-vehicle, The Happening, I do also know that it's not his worst movie.

But we're here today to talk about Split, Shyamalan's follow-up to 2014's The Visit, itself quietly hailed as a return to form.  Split has received much the same reception—which means, I guess, that there are still people out there who won't admit that Signs is desperately horrible, given that Split is riven with so many of the exact same problems.  The most noticeable of them, of course, is that Split is extraordinarily stupid; although, this time around, this wasn't going to be its biggest issue.

I mean, "being extraordinarily stupid" is the draw here, for what we have is a psychological thriller about dissociative identity disorder, every hammy actor's favorite semi-real mental illness.  There have been a lot of these pictures over the years; collectively, they form what amounts to cinema's most proudly idiotic subgenre,  devoted to the camp-friendly conception of the controversial diagnosis as an improv sketch crossed with a demonic possession.  Split's not even close to an exception to that rule, which is why the most salient aspect of Split's ad campaign was the promise of yet another showcase for our beloved high-energy Scotsman, James McAvoy, to wallow in yet another cartoon psychosis.  On that count, it even more-or-less delivers—but that only covers about half of the sheer nonsense that Shyamalan's back-to-the-batshit scenario ultimately rolls out.  Thus your enjoyment of the film rests principally upon just how fantastically dumb, yet simultaneously sourpussed, you're willing to allow your movies to be.

And that's where being dumb starts to become a problem: Shyamalan's dead-serious approach to every last shot has always coexisted uneasily with the deliriously-unserious conceits he tends to use in order to veil all the deeper meanings he aims at.  Clearly, some of these devices are far more acceptable than others: ghost psychologists and hidden villages are tropes you can get a handle on; evil trees and Narfs, less so.  Split's comic-book version of DID has enough of a history behind it that you can't object to its regurgitation with any watertight intellectual honesty.  Yet, in the execution, you might still feel like you must.

It's not like Shyamalan doesn't know that his movies tend to rest upon mushy foundations.  (Hell, it's arguable that they'd be more effective if he didn't.)  In Split, much as in The Happening before it, he lets his obvious self-knowledge bleed into the story; the result is that it's often easier to laugh at it than with it, because Split never quite develops the proper mood for a successful split-personality exercise, the kind of mood where you consent to enjoy the sleazy geek show for what it is.  Consider that other contender for the Hitchcock Crown, the one who overshot his idol, the great De Palma.  He made not one but two movies about split personalities.  But when he made Dressed to Kill and Raising Cain, he knew that, in essence, he was making warped comedies.

Shyamalan's making a drama here, though, and Split whipsaws back and forth between its two abiding modes—avowing its own goofiness, then rudely demanding that you appreciate how achingly sincere its real intentions are.  There's something to be said for sincerity.  But if Shyamalan is a "master" of anything, it's setting up high-wire acts he can't actually complete.  Once again, he expects you to respect a tone of sincerity that he only inconsistently manages to respect himself.  (Hark back to The Happening again, and reflect that Mark Wahlberg apologizing to a plastic plant is, in fact, more sincere than any line of dialogue he shares with Zooey Deschanel.)  He's simply never learned how to fix this, I guess, which is how half of Split is a high-kitsch howler, while the other half is stern and sober to the point of being obnoxious, at least in the context of what amounts to an excuse for McAvoy to do 23 silly voices whilst sexually menacing a trio of attractive young women in increasing states of undress.

Let's meet our man Kevin, then, and all his silly voices.  Lately, Kevin's set himself to the task of kidnapping those aforementioned teen girls, and, soon enough, he's rendered his quarries to his giant basement dungeon, location unknown.  Of Kevin's three victims, it's obvious from nearly the very first frame of the film that only one matters, thanks to dialogue that marks her as a somewhat-pitied and barely-tolerated social outcast.  And this is our heroine, Casey, who's also the only one who approaches the situation with anything like a level head.  But even with Casey at the bat, it's still rather hard to say how the ladies are going to get out of this particular pickle.

And once they do start to get a real bead on Kevin, the revelation of his disorder comes as both a ray of hope and an omen of absolute doom: for one of his personalities, Hedwig, has the mind of a little boy, and he can be bamboozled, and, if that doesn't work, he can at least be pleaded with; but, on the other hand, it turns out that the Derrick alter, along with his partner in auto-body-snatching, Miss Patricia, have teamed up in order to deliver these girls to the so-called Beast, a 24th personality, who desires to consume the purity and joy he simply assumes these girls possess.  And we get the feeling that he means consume quite literally.

The plot, of course, is a silly episode of SVU, only without any Benson or Stabler to anchor it through familiarity.  (Though take heart, because there is a Carisi—"Derrick" being so indebted to a stereotype of Staten Island that McAvoy owes Peter Scanavino royalties for stealing his voice.)  It's also an episode of SVU that's been very noticeably padded, in order to fill up a feature's length; and one of Split's littler problems is how blithely it wears out its welcome toward the end, something that might not have happened if the film had been its proper length, which I imagine we can all agree is "around 80 minutes, and 95 if you're feeling self-indulgent," rather than scraping right against the roof of two full hours.

This is where Kevin's doctor comes in, and if there's any single element you can point to and say, "this just does not work," then it's Dr. Fletcher, who wanders in and out of the film without anything to do besides hawk insane exposition at us.  She's not unlike Scatman Crothers in The Shining, and never positioned as anything but that; but imagine Crothers' role expanded to ten times its size, and entirely devoted to reading off wonderfully-bad walls of text.  Naturally, most of these text walls concern her magical theories about Movie DID; and they culminate in a recitation of Kevin's description of the supernatural powers of the Beast.  And whom do we find delivering this monologue?  Why, none other than Betty "You Eyin' My Lemon Drink?" Buckley, performing her useless character with the kind of enthusiastic monotone that's endemic in Shyamalan's filmography, and every other line of dialogue she spouts is riddled with the kind of idiotic, meaningless detail that Shyamalan commonly confuses with appealing specificity.  Indeed, she seems especially excited about the Beast's rumored ability to climb walls.

And oh yes, that is foreshadowing—and of the bluntest type, at that.  (Gosh, guys, remember when Shyamalan was able to make a whole movie while keeping us blissfully unaware that Bruce Willis was dead?)  Dr. Fletcher's penchant for just laying the climax out there for everybody to see it is yet one more reason that Split might've been a reasonably satisfactory potboiler, if only it weren't saddled with a half-hour's worth of Psychiatrist Epilogues from Psycho.

It really can't be overstated just how badly Fletcher interferes with, well, everything.  But she's especially hard on the editing: conspicuously bad cross-cutting sabotages the thriller momentum nearly every single time it gets going, with scenes in Kevin's lair routinely inerrupted with scenes of Fletcher muddling along, without much clear sense of chronology or causality, let alone dramatic necessity.  Meanwhile, the screenplay's (largely arbitrary) deployment of Kevin's personalities presents a problem all by itself.  Even the intra-scene editing has a tendency to break down in the process of getting McAvoy to hit his marks—hell, there's a moment where Kevin manages a wardrobe change in the space of a cut that doesn't break continuity in any other way.  It's a moment that sums Split up pretty well: like a lot of the film, I simply can't tell if it's Shyamalan making a little self-aware joke, but even if he is, it still feels like it's at our expense.

It's hard to know where the script problems end and the cutting room problems begin, but although we surely went into Split knowing perfectly well what it was up to, there's still no excuse for dropping the film's multiple-personality premise right into the audience's lap in the midst of a Goddamn therapy session, instead of saving it for the moment it's actually revealed to Kevin's victims.  That's not because the inherent mystery of the thing is anything more than notional—"what does this bad man want?" is never a serious question in Split—but because the effectiveness of a movie like this one is so contingent on identifying with the characters it puts in distress, whereas "knowing" before they do can only put a distance between us and them.  It's almost as fatal as simply being boring—and, of course, that's the other thing Fletcher's scenes always are, even when they're unintentionally(?) hilarious.

Intentional humor does get its chance to shine, however, thanks to McAvoy's game performance; though if you're a student of McAvoy, then you've already seen him play cartoon crazy, twice, and a whole lot better, back in Trance and Filth.  I'll concede that (on paper) Split has the more tantalizing gimmick.  Pity, then, that Kevin's multiple personalities effectively amount to but three—Derrick (the aggressor/protector), Barry (Kevin's public face, who, why not, is mincingly gay), and Hedwig (the developmentally-challenged child, who is clearly being pitched as intentional comedy, and, to Shyamalan and McAvoy's credit alike, does succeed).  Incidentally, while you think I'm leaving out Patricia, I'm really not, for she's barely in the film, and transparently exists as an excuse to get McAvoy into a dress for a sight gag, which inevitably dies its perfunctory death onscreen, since it only ever amounts to a a sneak preview of an unpopular conceptual drag revue, anyway.  But then, Crazy Drag Queen McAvoy itself isn't all that new either, so one could theoretically understand why Shyamalan doesn't bother—though Patricia's incomplete, shall we say, visualization opens up a very curious plot hole in a movie where Kevin's various alters can independently manifest physiological changes as far afield as diabetes, nearsightedness, and Jekyll's Disease.  And that's a real wasted opportunity, I'm sure you'll agree.  (And, hey, as long as we're on the subject of wasted opportunities: when you realize what Kevin's dungeon is actually the basement to, you'll be annoyed as all hell that Shyamalan couldn't muster up one single set-piece at ground level for us to play with.)

Well, opposing our fractured villain, we have Anya Taylor-Joy as our Final Girl, and she's been better, too, although here we find her playing single-minded trauma well enough that you do still hope there's a nice action-thriller waiting for her out there somewhere.  Overall, though, you mainly just feel a little bad for Taylor-Joy, since Casey's only real opportunity to match wits is with Kevin's most witless alter, little Hedwig.

And that does, at last, bring us to Split's insuperable problem: having a "Final Girl" as overdetermined as this one is in the first place.  Split straight-up forgets about its other two victims for something like an hour of screentime; and even when Shyamalan wheels his meat props back in to serve their only true function, he doesn't have the sick decency to really go for the gusto.  It's the kind of thing that wouldn't matter very much in a less ambitious (or less pretentious) film, where everyone exists to die; it wouldn't be a problem at all in a movie that made it clear its sympathies were with its victims (even if it's totally rad how they bleed); but in a movie that comes this close to taking its killer's side, and actually thinks it has something important to say about pain and suffering and abuse (and Split surely thinks it has!), it's right on the edge of genuinely offensive.  A distressingly plausible takeaway from Split is that some people deserve to be abused—because, to quote another, more effective woman-hating madman, "[they] don't know what pain is."  But, for once, I'll give ol' M. Night the benefit of the doubt here: I think this was just an accident of his design—merely the inevitable result of the fundamentally broken way he tends to spin his tales.

Because what Split does, above all, is showcase (yet again!) Shyamalan's absolute worst trait as a storyteller: the fuck everyone, "swing away, Merill!" embrace of narratives that exist, solely and almost explicitly, to illuminate one or two human beings' personal problems in the midst of genre carnage, while remaining agnostic on the issue of whether its supporting characters might even have souls.  (It works in more whimsical movies, like Spielberg's; but whimsy is one of the things Shyamalan never could get a grasp on.)

There's cold comfort to be taken in the fact that Split still manages to be a little more elegant than some of Shyamalan's other 21st century offerings.  Maybe it's because this time Shyamalan doesn't have to destroy the whole world in order to reorient his protagonist's worldview; and, at the end of the day, there is a real, identifiable emotional core to Split, which (at the very least) manages to distinguish this project from Signs' Book of Job For Dummies or The Happening's psychotic focus upon an objectively-unlikable relationship withering in the face of armageddon.  But that does not make it good storytelling; and if you combine that with some rather inconsistent moviemaking, then what you have, I suppose, really is a return to form.  But this is a form I thought we rejected years ago.

Score: 4/10


  1. You sly dog, sneaking a "Casey at the Bat" reference in there.

    I'm SO glad you're still a voice of reason in this cold, deluded world. Split has been getting an enormous amount of accolades from people who don't seem to realize that 1) DID is an enormously stupid movie disease, and a concept that frustrates me almost as much as the "we only use 10 percent of our brains" story and 2) This movie is weirdly almost pro-molestation?

    And there's no excusing Dr. Fletcher and her enthusiastic spouting of pseudo-science and recitation of exposition directly to the character she's describing. Its laziness at its peak.

    And how the hell could you promise us 23 distinct personalities and only give us 3? I demand a recount!


    PS: I still love United States of Tara. Toni Collette could have made this movie work.

    1. It's kind of surprising, the positive notices. I guess everybody loves an underdog story of Hollywood redemption.

      I was maybe slightly misleading, now that I think about it: "Patricia" is in one more scene, where Kevin gets bashed on the head with a chair, and in the best-worst horror movie tradition, they don't stick around to keep hitting him until they see the brains. Can the trope of the woman too scared to finish a kill just die already?

      Anyway, it did make me want to watch The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, again. So Split does have that going for it.

      (Although [spoiler?] Split's closing moments certainly do kind of make Unbreakable worse. Behold: the Shyamalan Cinematic Universe. TREMBLE, MORTAL.)