Friday, January 20, 2017

Breakable: SPLIT

Split is a movie fractured between victims and victimizers. It has a trio of kidnapped girls trapped in a nondescript basement, cowering and terrified and unsure how to fight back and escape. It also follows the kidnapper, an imposing and intimidating man of few words who is also his own victim, as multiple personalities share his mind, some good and trying to push him to do the right thing, others bad, using his body for evil. They all fear The Beast. The movie awaits his arrival, a new, scary personality that will banish all the others and take the body for his own nefarious animalistic purposes. As an M. Night Shyamalan movie, it takes on a fractured quality as well. It’s somewhere between the expensive, expansive, gorgeously designed studio pictures of his early career – masterful thoughtful chillers like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village – and the nastier, scrappier B-movie he’s now making for Blumhouse, starting with found-footage lark The Visit. His movies are quiet, contemplative, and restrained. But now they’ve taken on a grotesque crowd-pleasing edge, this one taking the time occasionally to linger on young bodies in tight undergarments and bloody bites taken out of abdomens. But what joins these impulses is a patience, and a willingness to sit the majority of its runtime in a serious, overwhelming, portentous feeling of impending doom. Cutting between the basement, the man, his therapist, and flashbacks from the lead girl, each gathers its own sick pit of despair, and the only resolution for these damaged characters will be to embrace their damage, and make their pain an asset.

In this way, the unusually structured screenplay goes askew from the predictable, leaning away from simple dichotomies or the expected suspense. It’s not so much about who will escape and who will die. It’s not particularly interested, even, in what will make the violence erupt, though genre dictates it must. Instead, Shyamalan, drifting away from these threads so often it deflates the suspense, makes a strikingly directed film like a high-gloss scuzzy character study. It’s about a man (James McAvoy) struggling with his identity, lashing out with frightening intensity as the eerily composed kidnapper, scolding himself as a matronly planner of this evil, regressing into creepily charming childlike naivete as a perpetual kid personality stuck along for the ride. This is hardly convincing representation of mental illness, but as metaphor for a confused, lonely, traumatized creep desperately trying to pull his life together and make sense of his purpose, it has a cockeyed compelling energy. Add to it the girls he takes – two best friends (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) and a distant acquaintance (Anya Taylor-Joy) snatched from the parking lot of a teenager’s birthday party – trying to figure him out to stay safe, and it’s startling to see how differentiated McAvoy makes the personalities. When’s he’s the harmless youngster, it’s so convincing the immediate tension deescalates, leaving only the worry another facet of his mind will suddenly reappear. 

Shyamalan – with sharp cinematographer Michael Gioulakis (of the similarly confident widescreen creepy It Follows) – glides the camera down dark hallways, or parks at direct bird’s-eye-view angles to take in the tableaus his designs. A man darts out of the dark, into the searing spotlight of a streetlamp, only to disappear again. The slow opening of a car door suddenly reveals a girl’s presence with the dinging of the alarm alerting the villain that it’s ajar. Shyamalan milks moments for maximum suspense, giving over lengthy scenes to Taylor-Joy’s backstory, a wounding story of trauma with a slow-boil reveal that’s borderline distasteful and deeply disturbing, all the more so for its casual reality and horror exposition backdrop. It starts like one of those explaining-the-final-girl’s-hidden-beast-killing-skills flashbacks, but becomes something far more chilling in its emotional underpinnings, especially when the movie leaves her story’s emotional journey so tense and unresolved. The other prong of the tale – therapist Betty Buckley, whose intense professional interest in her unusual client is nonetheless too slow to stop the story before it starts – is given over to origin-story babbling, overexplaining the fractured state of his mind, and the ability for it to manifest convincingly different physicality as he appears to almost shrink into smaller, meeker personas and expand into larger, domineering ones. Yet it’s of a piece with the movie’s stressed and distressed characters, crumbling under the weight of bearing burdens with which they’ve been cursed.  

This is hardly Shyamalan’s best film, but it carries provocative ideas and confident filmmaking. He once more rides the line between inadvertent silliness and ponderous philosophizing, maintaining a satisfying balance through a mix of controlled, assured blocking – sinister rack focus, suspenseful tracking shots, simmering long takes – and coaxing tremendously full-bodied performances from serious performers giving it full attention with nary a condescending wink. If you’re on his wavelength, you’ll know how effective his techniques remain. Here is the work of a filmmaker flexing his style, noodling around a grabbing high concept to moderate effect. It lacks the artful intent of his best work, and the eager genre thrills of his most misunderstood (charming fantasy misfires Lady in the Water, Last Airbender and After Earth, and ersatz R-rated Twilight Zone episode The Happening). But it has his low-key eccentric personality and no-nonsense visual control, and again proves a big screen Shyamalan experience should always be something of an event.

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