Friday 20 January 2017

Bananas: "Split"

Let's give M. Night Shyamalan this: in the years since his breakthrough one-two of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (still this director's best, most uncanny imaginings), he's been persistent, if far from consistent. After that first wave of supernatural wonders, there followed folly after folly, some (The Village) more interesting than others (Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender); in almost every one, you felt him pushing too hard to replicate those earlier, blockbusting successes, rather than being allowed to learn quietly on the job. Shyamalan was last witnessed turning in the lowish-budget found-footager The Visit, which hardly met with critical approval (to these eyes, it looked like a creative dead-end, a desperate last resort), but granted him a measure of commercial success, and a new home at Blumhouse Productions, prolific enablers of the Insidious and Purge franchises, among others. It would appear that Shyamalan has here found his natural level: making the kind of low-cost, potentially high-reward B-pictures that bet-hedging studios now seek out to sell on to teenage mallrats, albeit making them with a degree of technical and storytelling nous.

Split - which, right from its opening credits, makes clever play of that title - proceeds with a narrative that bifurcates and bifurcates until the point where Shyamalan can dust off his suture kit and start knitting these strands back together. Having tried to resuscitate the now-DOA found-footage format with his previous film, the new one finds Shyamalan the genre surgeon striving to salvage something worthwhile from the even more debased form of torture porn, beginning as it does with the grimly familiar spectacle of three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) being kidnapped and locked up in a basement by James McAvoy's bullet-headed, buttoned-down Dennis. 

Things don't pan out quite as expected, however. For one, there are clear splits between the girls, a consequence of their pre-existing social status; for another, Dennis is but one face of a man suffering from multiple personality disorder who presents to his shrink (Betty Buckley) as a swishing fashion designer called Barry, and to the girls as a prim-and-proper Ma Bates type (in a dress), then as a man with learning difficulties and a penchant for Kanye West. (Shyamalan offers no comment as to whether the two might be connected.) The fightback commences when the quietest of the potential victims - Taylor-Joy's Casey - puzzles out a novel way to overcome their keeper: a not-so-simple matter of turning one of his personalities against another.

That development alone speaks to the not inconsiderable element of bad taste in this script: we're also told Dennis has a weakness, perhaps shared by a section of the audience, for watching young women dance naked, and shown him removing selected items of the girls' clothes on the pretext they've become "dirty", meaning the whole film's both a countdown and a terrible tease. The good news, however, is that by picking up this disreputable strand of entertainment, Shyamalan looks to have abandoned all those thoughts of becoming the saviour of the Western world that he let slip during Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender. The new film foregrounds many of those qualities you may have admired in those first films - the curious commingling of science and storytelling (seen here in Buckley's Skyped dispatches to medical conferences about the unusual nature of her patient's condition), the utterly idiosyncratic camera framing that thinks nothing of obscuring a face or shooting in extreme close-up if it gets the audience to sit up and lean in - but yokes all this technique to a plot that merits working through, and possibly has to be seen to be believed.

The most enjoyable game Shyamalan has invited us to play in over a decade, Split is very capably sustained by its nimble players. McAvoy, occasioning a whole new showreel for his long-evident adaptability, creates a half-dozen distinct personalities, increasingly having to toggle between them - via a shift in facial expression or physical bearing - in the course of a single scene. (His B-boy dancing hits an exact sweet spot between creepy and funny.) The emergent Taylor-Joy, meanwhile, consolidates her eyecatching work in last year's horror hit The Witch, demonstrating a combination of resilience, ingenuity and eerie beauty that you come to suspect might just outwit (or further unhinge) her captor. 

It's still not quite as slick or proficient as the Shyamalan of yore: during the director's obligatory cameo - as "Hooters enthusiast", which says something about the journey he's been on - there's a reference to Henry V where someone surely meant Henry VIII (the Blumhouse boys presumably wouldn't know the difference), and the whole thing's wildly overwritten, thirty minutes too long for a B-movie, feeling a need to explain itself (and its position in the Shyamalan Cinematic Universe) deep into the closing credits. (I wonder whether we might start to think of Shyamalan as the Tarantino of fantasy-horror: another Miramax golden boy handed creative carte blanche at a perilously early stage in his development.) Still, where once we found this director playing God, here, newly humbled, we find him displaying no greater pretension than to toss his audience a handful of yaks and yuks to lap up on a Friday or Saturday night. At this point in this career, we'll take that. 

Split opens in cinemas nationwide today.  

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