Friday, 27 January 2017

Film Review: Split is mad enough to escape the messy

How important is a film's thematic focus if said film is just brilliant fun? That's a question I found myself pondering a lot after I saw M. Night Shyamalan's Split. If a film is enjoyable and intense and exciting enough on its own, does it matter that its themes and more powerful ideas are lacking in focus? Or is that merely a superfluous element of the film that just happens not to work? Ideally, a middle ground should be located. Yet, with Split, I can't help but feel disappointed that its tackling of mental illness feels so thinly written.

Following a birthday party, three girls, including outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, terrific), are abducted by a man and taken to a basement where he lives. They soon learn that the man (James McAvoy, breathtaking) suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder - he has twenty three different personalities living inside his head. The three girls are forced to find a way to escape the basement by manipulating the man's range of identities before "The Beast," a rumoured twenty fourth personality, arrives to kill them.

If it sounds like one hell of a character to play, that's because it is - and McAvoy is outstanding. He's frightening and authoritative as "Dennis," he's funny and playfully innocent as "Hedwig" and he's down right terrifying when "The Beast" finally arrives. His handling of a character with this condition is superb, when he's tasked with playing one personality masquerading as another he brilliantly allows elements of both to seep through simultaneously. When the film reaches its final act, he has to switch identities almost constantly, sometimes within the same sentence. It's a blast to watch, and the range of emotions and feelings he conveys is without question the film's biggest selling point.

Taylor-Joy is also convincing as Casey, even if she's given much less to play with. She handles the film's more intense sequences with ease and whenever she's asked to let her more vulnerable side through, she's entirely believable. It's frustrating that her character feels thinly sketched, though. Taylor-Joy is an engaging on-screen presence and is more than capable of handling more emotional material, but the film's script never finds an effective way of working Casey's backstory (presented in flashbacks) into the present. A last minute reveal that has a huge impact on the film's resolution feels spontaneous and frustratingly anticlimactic.

This is made even more underwhelming by the fact that Split has one hell of a final act. It's helped massively by the film's surprisingly nimble structural work - the girls are kidnapped in the very first scene, and there's always something going on until the final moments. Split essentially has to stall for its entire middle act - it's already told us that the girls can't be harmed until "The Beast" arrives, which would normally cut out all tension and make for a tedious narrative - but Shyamalan's script is clever in how it keeps the story unfolding. We don't learn much new information in the middle hour, but it's consistently engaging.

Shyamalan also demonstrates some effective cinematography here. There's a high number of shots in the film that make use of a symmetrical background, but are thrown off centre by a human presence within the frame. It comes across as a visual representation of the disorder that plagues Kevin (the man's real name) and is consistently well utilised. Whenever one of the girls makes a break for it, every chase sequence is shot down a symmetrical corridor and the way the film keeps returning to this style of framing allows most sequences to feel unpredictable even in their familiarity.

It's a shame, then, that Split's visual style seems to possess a better understanding of the film's themes than it's script does. Shyamalan is clearly invested in his story and his characters, but it's disappointingly tough to feel the same way. Kevin is an interesting character but his psychiatric sessions do little more than scratch the surface. The film eventually succumbs to a flashback sequence to Kevin's childhood but again fails to reveal much new information. It creates a disjointed approach - is Split trying to make us understand Kevin's backstory or hide it form us? It can't achieve both, and Shyamalan never really decides which path he wants to go down. It creates a character that is consistently engaging, but rarely more than what we see on the surface.

It all builds towards a last minute twist - quite literally, it lands in the last line of the film - that will do one of two things for you. It will either reshape everything you've just seen and turn Split into something completely different, or it'll fail to impact you at all and leave you perplexed as to the line's relevance - to say any more would be verging on spoiler territory. Split is a solid film, and in its best moments it becomes a great one, but it doesn't possess the thoughtfulness that its emotional core desperately needs. There are some deliriously intense moments, and the reveal of where the basement is actually located is terrific, but the whole thing is forced down by a confused and uneven script. It might not pull the film completely off balance, but it'll probably prevent you from wanting to discuss its characters any further once the credits roll. And, for a film about a character like this, that isn't particularly good.

In A Sentence

Under M. Night Shyamalan's reliably mad direction, Split makes for a fun and often tense time at the movies - even if its thematic content is too poorly focused for the characters to properly flourish.

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