Thursday, June 22, 2017

Split Decision

I'd heard a gamut of responses on M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie, Split, ranging from "he's finally back" to "it's better than most of the crap he's done lately anyway" to "it's as bad as anything he's ever made." I was too curious to skip it, not because I wanted to watch the M. Night trainwreck (or root for the M. Night revival), but because I wanted to see the performance of the star, James McAvoy.

McAvoy plays a man inhabited by 23 distinct personalities (we're told; we actually see perhaps a third of those). But this goes far beyond any typical fictional portrayal of multiple personality disorder; this man undergoes physiological changes whenever a new personality takes hold. He's an evolving being, his therapist believes. He's also a psychopath (in part); the movie revolves around one of his personalities abducting three teenage girls and imprisoning them in a mysterious subterranean shelter.

The writing here is middling. The premise is fascinating enough, and the actual plot does manage to touch on most of the moments you'd want to see mined for entertainment. But the script is also unnaturally structured for the sake of surprise. (I'm not talking about a "twist ending" here, but we'll get to that.) Sprinkled throughout the movie are flashbacks to the childhood of young Casey, the central of the three imprisoned victims. Also sprinkled throughout are interactions between the abductor and his therapist. I think making you wait to see these scenes hurts the overall experience.

Once you've seen all of these separated flashbacks and interviews, the behavior of both Casey and her captor do make sense, at least within the film's logic. But until you have that full picture, nothing either of them does seems to track. Casey seems unreasonably docile, while McAvoy's abductor seems to switch personalities for no reason other than plot convenience. Both of these issues have explanations -- a solid one for Casey, an "I guess it'll do" one for the villain. But by the time you understand all that, there's maybe just 15 minutes left in the movie, and you've spent too much of what's come before thinking, "oh, come on."

I suppose I did get what I came to see, though -- a pretty good performance from James McAvoy. It's not at a Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black level of greatness, but there are distinct characters here, and many feel more legit that just affecting a voice as a gag. The movie wouldn't hold together as well without McAvoy.

It's M. Night Shyamalan, so there's a twist ending, right? Well, sort of. Not really, in the way you're probably thinking of it. There is scene at the end, a tag on the film itself, that places the entire story into a different context that you'll either appreciate or roll your eyes at, depending on your take on Shyamalan's earlier work (back when everyone loved him without shame or irony).

I'm not sure this movie is totally worth recommending, though, even for a good performance. I'd call it about a C+. I suppose that puts me in the "better than a lot of Shyamalan, but not great" camp.

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