Split (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Split (2017)

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Kevin and Casey are slipping through the cracks.  His doctor mines his multiple personalities for academic success, and she is taunted by her classmates unaware of her trauma.  Neither can account for "The Beast", a rumored 24th personality within Kevin who needs a sacrifice, and Casey might be next.  M. Night Shyamalan wrote the screenplay for and directs Split, which stars James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley.

Considering the good with the bad, one thing I hope we can all agree on when it comes to the movies of M. Night Shyamalan is that he does not take marching orders.  Shyamalan has been connected to franchises like Harry Potter or Indiana Jones only to go back to doing his own thing.  His "own thing" has its share of ups and downs - I'm not sure any amount of cultural recontextualization can salvage The Last Airbender - but as his signature touches became widespread jokes he kept working.

Shyamalan's persistence is to our benefit as 2015's The Visit was a fun surprise about spoiled kids, and now Split showcases Shyamalan's goofy best.  It's important to remember for all the next Hitchcock/Spielberg hype Shyamalan received early on that he never graduated to "serious" productions.  All of Shyamalan's movies benefit from no small amount of camp distance, be it the ludicrous weightlifting scene from Unbreakable or the tinfoil hat jokes of Signs.  If you don't appreciate those moments then Split's going to be a tough sell when James McAvoy pops onscreen with a faux-British affectation muttering schoolmarm aphorisms to terrified teenagers.  I'm the kind of cineaste whose delight in writing that description is second only to watching McAvoy deftly maneuver through the many personas he has to inhabit.

James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy are responsible for carrying Split, and both perform excellently toward the surprisingly touching conclusion.

Shyamalan's script proposes at least 23 personalities inside Kevin (McAvoy) and wisely realizes having him switch between that many would be jarring to watch.  Not that McAvoy isn't game to the task, and part of the fun of Split is trying to figure out which personality has control of Kevin.  The best of these moments is when his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), realizes she's talking to one personality pretending to be another.  The way McAvoy transitions his face from goofy to dead serious, combined with Shyamalan shooting from behind Dr. Fletcher to make her seem small in comparison, is so fun I forgot how much danger Dr. Fletcher was in.

Not that she particularly cared, which is a much-needed point about mental health stories made in Shyamalan's script.  There's a baffling tendency to give those with mental illnesses or physical handicaps special powers - be it autistic children who can solve any puzzle or adults who are great at gambling.  I know it's meant to be reassuring, but I've always found it disrespectful to those who live with mental illnesses to say it's okay because they'll be presented as savants in fiction.  Shyamalan twists this on its head completely, with Kevin gaining access to "The Beast" precisely because Dr. Fletcher ignores his warning signs so that she can talk about how great it is she found this patient that proves her hypothesis about dissociative identity granting the sufferer superpowers.

Writing powers or special advantages for characters who suffer from mental illness is a way for the rest of us to defensively shut ourselves away from their struggle.  Shyamalan's dialogue makes this clear with insights into how Kevin and his captive Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are perceived.  Kevin has the aforementioned Dr. Fletcher treating him as an exhibit, while Casey has other captives calling her fear of Kevin, "victim shit," and asking her, "Why do you act like you're not one of us?"  In carefully doled out flashbacks, we come to understand why Casey is hesitant to help, and her reasons are rooted in another sin of society in ignoring family abuse when it happens.

All of this is way smarter than I was expecting.  Though I shouldn't be too surprised after The Visit tackled class problems and ageism in the guise of a found footage movie.  In addition to his whip-smart script, Shyamalan indulges in spectacular camera tricks before Kevin has even arrived.  Our first glimpse of Casey involves the camera doing a dolly zoom synchronized with a slow rotation around her, seeing her adrift in her trauma even when in a "safe" place.  It's like Shyamalan's exercise in restraint by working in the found-footage style freed him to go hog wild with Split.

McAvoy does such a good job shifting his performance with each personality it's easy to forget the changes in perception matched by M. Night Shyamalan's camera.

The fun McAvoy and Shyamalan are having with the extremes of Split results in some spectacular moments.  There's a chase scene that borrows equally from Wait Until Dark and Spider-Man as Kevin crawls along the ceiling smashing lights in pursuit of Casey.  An impromptu dance number à la Ex Machina grows more threatening than its inspiration as McAvoy throws his body around a decrepit room with little regard to his physical safety. Finally there's Casey, looking for all the world like a reborn Ellen Ripley, standing in stern defiance of fate in her tank top and exposed scars.

Split culminates in an ending that's sincerely touching as two wounded people connect in different ways over the trauma they suffered earlier in life.  The sad thing is, if they had received the care and attention they should have, none of this would have happened.  That's a fact Shyamalan focused on with the nauseating shot of Casey in the beginning right on through Kevin's manic spree at the end.  I'm pleased as punch The Visit wasn't a fluke, and happy to see Shyamalan nearing the end of a long train of narratives he started almost two decades ago.

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Split (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley.

Posted by Andrew

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