Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: "Split"

It would be hard to deny the silliness in “Split.” Certainly, any movie that in 2017 dusts off the hoary chestnut of split personalities as its main dynamic risks ridicule and guffaws. But I think writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is aware of this, bends our expectations to his purposes and sneaks plenty of genuine scares in between the smirks.

The two impulses feed off each other and co-exist in something that’s not exactly harmony, but at least stability.

After years of big-budget failures, Shyamalan returned to his supernatural horror/mystery roots with the ultra-cheap “The Visit” in 2015, and continues his career resurgence with this movie.

It mostly works because it depends upon the abilities of two very talented actors, James McAvoy – probably best known as the young version of Professor Xavier in the recent “X-Men” movies -- and Anya Taylor-Joy, who made a big impression in last year’s “The Witch.”

It starts off with a pulp horror setup: three teen girls are drugged and kidnapped by a mysterious stranger, who ensconces them in an underground bunker reminiscent of Jame Gumb’s from “The Silence of the Lambs.” All sorts of rape/cannibalism scenarios are soon flashing through their minds.

Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula play the more popular girls, who invited Casey (Taylor-Joy) to a birthday party out of sympathy. She’s the school’s problem child, in and out of detention and more serious beefs. But it also makes her oddly better equipped to deal with their dire circumstances.

Their captor is just as creepy as we might figure: dressed in gray coveralls, skinhead, glasses and a perpetual scowl. He’s massive and strong, so thoughts of overpowering him fade. This is Dennis, who cannot abide disorder or uncleanliness. If one of the girls gets a tiny bit of dirt on an article of clothing, even if it’s the result of his own actions, he forces them to remove it. They, and we, are sure we know where this is headed.

But then they hear a woman’s voice, and think they are saved. Only it’s Patricia, one of 23 identities inhabiting one body, warring for time “in the light.” It seems Dennis and Patricia were banned long ago for bad behavior, but lately they’ve shunted aside the rest to take control of things – to protect all of us, they say. Other personalities include Barry, a friendly and positive fashion designer, and Hedwig, a 9-year-old with naughty tendencies abetted by the new order.

Complicating things is Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the therapist who treats this multitude. She’s a bleeding edge practitioner, who believes that people with dissociative identity disorder actually represent the next step in human adaptability. Simply by believing they are separate identities, parts of Dennis et al are capable of needing glasses or not, having diabetes, tremendous strength – perhaps even more.

McAvoy achieves some pretty amazing transformations through sheer technical craftsmanship. Despite his head never changing, from that blank, pale hairless orb, he actually seems to shrink and grow in size, and displays a wide range of mannerisms. Dennis looms over the girls like an ogre, while Hedwig seems like a scrawny naïf.

Yes, the movie becomes goofy at times. That’s partly the nature of the material, but also partly the design of Shyamalan. He knows that the audience is bound to titter, and milks the humor rather than fleeing from it.

And yet “Split” is undeniably disquieting, too. It harkens back to the best of Shyamalan’s early films … perhaps too obviously in the end.

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