Main Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Luxury bathroom by Mattes

Fortunately, I had insisted on appropriately glamorous backstage facilities in Pacoima.

Hello darlings.  I am so sorry to have been incommunicado these past few weeks but I have been deathly ill and hospitalized and only just now beginning to recover some of my famous vitality after nothing but intravenous drips, tapioca, and the occasional highball for what seems like a month of Sundays.  It all started on the evening of my first preview performance in the title role of Gypsy in a stunning new production at the Pacoima Playhouse.  I had been feeling a bit unwell all day but, ever the trouper, I wasn’t going to let that keep me from my adoring public.  The show must go on has always been my motto, even if I have to tap my way off stage for the occasional unscheduled trip to the loo.  I even have a little ditty I can incorporate by singing into my body mic, Skip to the Loo, which covers such moments so that the audience is none the wiser.

At half hour, I had my dresser lace me into my foundation garments, and at places, I made my way through the back alley and through the side door of the lobby so I could make my triumphant first entrance down the aisle.  The famous overture started, I heard my music cue and sashayed into my first entrance.  I opened my mouth to utter ‘Hello everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine’ but before the words could come out, I was hit with the most convulsive cramps I had ever experienced  and had to make a beeline through the pass door to the stage, only just making it to the toilet on time.  I sang my little ditty at the top of my lungs to cover, but something must have been wrong with my body mic, because all I could hear through the monitor was that witch Angela Arden taking over the show as Madame Rose.  That’s when I passed out, only to awaken in the back of the ambulance on my way to the emergency department at Our Lady of the Bilious Colic.

The next few days were a blur of acute illness and hospital testing, and the end result was that I was diagnosed with the worst case of food poisoning that the gastroenterology department had ever seen.  I was told it was touch and go for a while but I am feeling much improved now.  I am so tired of the bland diet they’re offering that I’ve spent Normy off to the Ivy to pick out a dish or two that’s more suitable to my refined palate.  He’s been very sweet during my current indisposition, having dropped by my portable DVD/Blu-ray system so that I can watch a film or two while I continue my recovery.  He also brought me a selection of current releases from the ‘New and Notable’ rack at the Pic & Save.  My selection for the evening was Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s film from earlier this year.  Mr. Shyamalan made quite a splash in the late 90s with The Sixth Sense but his films of recent years have become more and more risible.  This one was hailed as a return to form and a substantial success for the writer/director.

Split is the story of a young woman named Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) who is having a typical teenage birthday celebration with her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and her not quite friend, the troubled Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy).  While leaving the mall with Claire’s father (Neal Huff), a shaven headed stranger (James McAvoy) stages a daring kidnapping, taking all three of the girls with him off to his secret lair where they awaken to find themselves in a windowless room.  It soon becomes apparent that their captor, Kevin, has a dissociative identity disorder (split personality) and that “Dennis”, the personality that took them is only one of many sharing Kevin’s body.  Claire and Marcia, being typical teens, are fairly hopeless in a crisis situation, but Casey, who has a sharp mind and an instinct for survival starts to plot their escape and rescue.    Kevin is under the care of a psychiatrist specializing in dissociative identity disorder (Betty Buckley) who begins to sense that something is wrong with her prize patient and starts to worry about what she thought was a fictitious additional personality, The Beast, who turns out to be all too real.  Will Casey escape?  Will the murderous beast reveal himself?  Will Dr. Fletcher open the wrong door?  All these questions and more are answered before the final reel.

Split has two things going for it which make it worth a look.  The first is James McAvoy’s central performance.  Mr. McAvoy has created a body language, way of speaking, and level of intensity that varies dramatically as the different personalities ‘come into the light’ and take control of his body.  It’s not an easy feat and he juggles all of these balls with the expertise of a true master.  The other is the relatively small canvas upon which Shyamalan is working.  His budget was less than $10 million dollars and the film is very tightly enclosed, taking place almost entirely within the odd underground bunker in which Kevin lives and his psychiatrist’s apartment.  The paucity of location and characters make Shyamalan need to be inventive which he does by giving McAvoy centerstage.  Betty Buckley nearly matches him in their scenes together (she’s a criminally underused actress in film) and some of what goes on between psychiatrist and patient gives the same kind of frisson that Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster were able to generate in The Silence of the Lambs.

Split also has some negatives.  Only Anya Taylor-Joy as the troubled Casey creates a character among the kidnapped girls about whom we care.  The other two are definitely disposable.  Casey’s backstory, which emerges in flashback, explains her somewhat abrasive nature and her need to be resourceful but falls into cliché.  The ending is also all over the place with some interesting elements (the location of the villain’s lair) and some straight out of left field elements (a surprise cameo in the last scene).  The problem with writer/directors is that they often don’t have a strong opposing force on the creative team pressuring them to fix problems.  This film could have used someone telling Shyamalan to go home and rethink the ending.   The surprise ending, however, definitely sets things up for a potential, and much larger sequel.  As long as McAvoy is allowed to hone his characters, it just might work.

There is some criticism in other quarters about the portrayal of mental illness and dissociative identity disorder as the central plot device in a thriller.  At least this time around, correct terminology is used and the psychiatrist character is a complex and fallible human, not just a plot device to provide narrative exposition. The trope is old, having been featured in such films as Psycho, The Three Faces of Eve, and The Other.  It’s not going away and as long as it’s treated as something other than an exploitative plot device, it doesn’t bother me too much.

Phone photos.  Ceiling removal.  Transvestism. Unusual window.  Gratuitous Hedwig. Tiger in a cage.  Amtrak transformation. Wall crawling. Gratuitous naked bear.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

photo by Mattes

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