REVIEW: “Split”

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It’s probably a bit of an understatement to call M. Night Shyamalan’s career one big roller coaster ride. I’m actually far more fascinating by the mass reactions from moviegoers who treat him like a true auteur who has fallen from cinematic grace. I think that’s giving Shyamalan a tad too much credit. “The Sixth Sense” is really good. “Unbreakable” is superb. I’m a big fan of “Signs”. These are three solid movies with a certain cultural standing, but they are hardly great enough to make his subsequent decline so fiercely noteworthy.

Still there is no denying that the quality of Shyamalan’s movies fell like a ton of bricks. And I will freely admit that getting the taste of “Lady in the Water”, “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” out of your mouth is next to impossible. For many people hope returned with 2015’s “The Visit”, a movie I had a lot of fun with. But for those unwilling to entertain the idea that Shyamalan’s career was back on the upswing, let’s just say “Split”  just might change your mind.

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For the most part the trailer sets up the entire premise. Three teenaged girls are kidnapped while leaving a birthday party. There abductor is Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. We learn through his sessions with his psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley) that Kevin possesses 23 unique personalities. Collectively they refer to themselves as The Horde.

While held captive the three girls encounter several of Kevin’s identities including the creepy  “Dennis” and the creepier “Patricia”. But they also meet gentler personalities from within Kevin’s mind, a sign of the intense internal conflict going on inside of him. McAvoy dives into his role head-first and shows off how crafty he can be when let off his leash. He is one of the film’s biggest strengths and it’s mind-boggling watching him bring out personality in each of the identities. It may be through accents, mannerisms, or even the slightest facial expression. Incredibly he makes each of them easily recognizable without any blatantly obvious markers.

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Of the three girls, Casey proves to be the more resilient. She’s cool-headed and observant – qualities learned from her deeply troubled past which Shyamalan feeds to us through a smattering of flashbacks. Casey is wonderfully played by Anya Taylor-Joy who gave an equally strong performance in last year’s “The Witch”. Performance-wise her fellow captives don’t fair as well. In their defense Shyamalan hands them some of the movie’s worst dialogue before leaving them locked up and in their underwear for the entire second half of the movie. Aren’t we tired of that yet?

Shyamalan leans heavily on scenes between Dr. Fletcher and one of Kevin’s more amiable personalities “Barry”. There is a psychological cat-and-mouse element to their sessions which is compelling. Shyamalan may lean on them a tad too much, but that’s not to say the scenes are without meaning. Also they allow for some of McAvoy’s best work. Through these scenes (and for that matter the entire film) Shyamalan maintains his sharp instincts for suspense and his skills with the camera are as good as ever.

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Then you have the finale. You’ll find no spoilers here and do yourself a favor – avoid them at all costs. Shyamalan has an impressive knack for causing you to immediately reevaluate his film after seeing its ending. It has never been more true than with “Split”. Shyamalan twists are a signature of his movies but prior to “The Visit” you could say he had become a parody of himself. “Split” proves he can still completely broadside any audience.

Shyamalan once again shows he is still a filmmaker worth paying attention to. “Split” is a movie with a few problems, some of which were easily avoidable. At the same time James McAvoy gives a stand-out performance and Anya Taylor-Joy continues to show she is the real deal. But most importantly Shyamalan sticks his ending with an insanely clever twist I never saw coming and that immediately compelled me to see the film again. Rarely has a conclusion surprised or impressed me quite like this. See it for yourself.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Visit”

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Few people have had a more roller coaster Hollywood career than M. Night Shyamalan. His first films earned him a ton of praise from enthusiastic critics and moviegoers. But after that he put out a series of true stinkers that threatened to railroad his once promising career. In fact many people wrote Shyamalan off as dead in the water. Yet while he did put out some really bad movies there was always a glimmer of hope that we would once again get a glimpse of the filmmaker we want him to be.

His latest film “The Visit” is another reminder of how effective Shyamalan can be with small-scale focused horror. It follows his familiar formula of slow buildup, slow buildup, big reveal and it does so competently and effectively. As with many of his stories, “The Visit” toys with some of our secret personal fears – twisting, contorting, and amplifying them before our eyes. This time it’s the fear of the elderly and senility.

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As the movie started my very first response was a concerned “Oh no”. Shyamalan chose to make this a found footage picture which is a fad I had hoped was finally dead and gone. But Shyamalan is intelligent in his usage of it. He dodges most of the annoyances that come with the found footage style, most notably narrative holes and the constantly moving cameras. We get fluid storytelling and predominately still cameras which are strategically implemented throughout the film.

The story is fairly simple. A single mother named Paula (played by Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t been the same since her husband left her and their two young children years prior. Her documentarian-in-training daughter Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and freestyle rapping young son Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) encourage her to take a cruise with her boyfriend while they go spend the week with their grandparents who they have never met. Here’s the deal, Paula hasn’t spoken to her parents for 15 years following a painful and bitter fight.

This will sound absurd but just go with it. Paula puts her two children on a train to Masonville, Pennsylvania where their grandparents pick them up. Rebecca films the entire thing as a gift to her mom hoping for a possible healing and reconciliation. At the station the kids are greeted by their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) who take them out to their country farmhouse. Everything is documented through Rebecca’s two cameras. Things start well but soon the kids begin noticing weird behavior from their grandparents which gets worse during their week-long stay.

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As I mentioned M. Night Shyamalan is known for his slow, methodical buildups and here we get it in the form of creepy moments from the grandparents. Shyamalan takes his time in feeding us these moments and just as the film started to fade for me we get the big twist which I thought worked like a charm. It quickly re-energized the story and made the final act a chilling and eerie ride filled with terrifying unpredictability.

While Shyamalan doesn’t reinvent the wheel with “The Visit” he does show us the able creative flourishes that made him a respected name and overnight success in the horror-thriller genre. It also (hopefully) reinvigorates a career that had been written off by many due to four consecutive disappointments. Maybe it’s the smaller budget or maybe it’s the clearer focus. Whatever the case, I can get behind Shyamalan doing these types of projects and hopefully this is the first step in an exciting comeback.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

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