February 11th 2017


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Free-trade policy sending manufacturing into free-fall

CANBERRA OBSERVED Jeers at suggestion we not be fringe dwellers

EDITORIAL Nothing new among Trump's executive orders

QUEENSLAND Pro-life Brisbane marches as abortion vote nears

GENDER POLITICS Autism, gender-dysphoria link: the evidence mounts

EUTHANASIA Quebec, Dutch, Belgian and Oregon laws a 'mess'

OBITUARY Scholar's passing is our common loss

WESTERN CIVILISATION The owl of Minerva: the signs of times past

POETRY Hal Colebatch: the poet who celebrates heroism

POETRY

MUSIC Juggling with time: it's all in the head

CINEMA What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: Split

BOOK REVIEW Teen brings 'penny dreadfuls' to life

BOOK REVIEW Money and quantum physics

LETTERS

EDITORIAL The future of Senator Cory Bernardi

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CINEMA
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger: Split


by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, February 11, 2017

In Unbreakable (2000), Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) proposes that superhero comics are a form of history, one that, while exaggerated, points to the existence of individuals with incredible gifts. The tension in that film comes from the question about whether or not David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is one such individual. He is the sole survivor of a catastrophic train crash, but is otherwise a very ordinary man with very ordinary problems.

Unbreakable was M. Night Shyamalan’s second major film after 1999’s The Sixth Sense, and consolidated his reputation as a Hitchcockian director of thrillers that often hinge on a twist ending. Since then, Shyamalan’s films have been of differing quality, with some doing better with critics and audiences than others. Split is a triumphant and provocative return to form, a psychological horror-thriller that relies on atmosphere and the performances rather than on the graphic gore and computer-generated trickery that dominate the genre.

Split opens unnervingly, with the camera focusing on a girl at a diner, set apart from her singing, laughing and carrying-on peers. They are there to celebrate the birthday of Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), a cheerful, friendly and decent popular girl. The raven-haired Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), garbed in many layers of clothes, has been invited so she doesn’t feel left out, but it has the opposite effect. Casey is seen as an odd girl, one who’s constantly in trouble and isolated. When her lift doesn’t arrive, Claire’s father (Neal Huff) offers to drop her home, along with Claire’s good friend Marcia (Jessica Sula).

It is here that things start to go wrong. The girls all get in the car, but instead of Casey’s father getting in to the driver’s seat, it’s the buttoned-up and bespectacled “Dennis” (James McAvoy) who gets in. He knocks the girls out with a spray and abducts them. They wake up in a custom-built underground room. Thanks to some quick thinking on Casey’s part, they manage to escape being separated, but their problems are only just beginning.

It is then that we are introduced to Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a kindly, mature-aged psychiatrist, as she awaits her patient “Barry” (James McAvoy). “Barry” is a flamboyant and talented artist who wants to be a fashion designer. “Barry” booked an emergency session, but when he gets there, he claims there’s nothing wrong.

Back in their prison, the girls hear “Dennis” talking to a lady, and thinking she will help them, they cry out, only to discover that the lady, “Patricia” (James McAvoy), is “Dennis” dressed as a woman. She explains that Dennis is not allowed to hurt them. Dennis returns to apologise, explaining that they are “sacred food” and that all will be made clear in time.

They go to sleep and later wake up to meet “Hedwig” (James McAvoy yet again), a cheeky and easily distracted nine year old, who warns them that “he’s coming and he’s done awful things to people and he’ll do awful things to you”, before talking about his blue socks.

Thanks to Dr Fletcher, we learn that Dennis, Barry, Patricia and Hedwig are separate identities, or “alters” that reside in Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin has 23 distinct identities, which even appear to have distinct physiologies. Dr Fletcher believes that Kevin’s condition might be more than a disorder, that it might represent the potential of humanity and the brain. She wants to help him, and believes in his importance, but she’s worried something untoward may be happening.

This story is intercut with scenes from Casey’s childhood that allude to her own traumas but also equip her to deal with the situation more thoughtfully than those of her more “untroubled” friends.

Split is a sharply conceived and produced thriller, one where the camerawork and the soundtrack are almost characters in themselves. The movie relies on a feeling of existential dread to make its impact, keeping the audience uncertain as to what is really going on. It is rendered more disturbing by the blackly comic scenes with Hedwig, who combines child-like innocence and child-like cruelty in the one character. And it does all this without gore or graphicness, channeling not just Hitchcock, but classic horror of yesteryear, like the original Cat People (1942).

McAvoy’s performance is stunning, as he switches between identities, sometimes in the blink of an eye. And the other actors do a sterling job of making the situation believable. While the film’s depiction of dissociative identity disorder is based on reported, if heavily contested, “fact”, it should not be taken as realistic, any more than Psycho is.

The kicker, in the very last scene, takes Split from being a brilliant, if disturbing, film into a whole new direction, one that makes it very interesting indeed.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).




























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