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Film: "Split"; Writer-Director: M Night Shyamalan; Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy; Rating: ***
So all right. We know this is a thriller about a kidnapper who assumes 23 personalities.
But would the real Manoj Night Shyamalan please stand up? Is he the director who turned around the very definition on screen thrills and horror with "The Six Sense", followed it up with the riveting "Unbreakable", and then slid downward into a seemingly fathomless pit of mediocrity with one disaster after another.
Manoj rapidly declined into the night with "Signs" (2002), "The Village" (2004), "The Lady In Water" (2006), "The Happening" (2008) and worst of all the 3D abomination "The Air Bender", which apart from other atrocities, also revealed Dev 'Slumdog' Patel to be an extremely inept actor.
To be honest, one thought "The Air Bender" to be a kind of closure on Shyamalam's career as a spook merchant. We thought it couldn't get any worse. In how many more ways could Shyamalan tell the same '...Sixth Sense' story over and over again? The eerie became progressively dreary in Shyamalan's oeuvre.
"Split" sees the return of Shyamalan to form. It is an unabashedly populist thriller conceived and designed to make us eat out of the director's hand. It gives us a startling anti-hero who inhabits many personalities. As played by James McAvoy, Kevin is sinister and scary. Or, so he would like us to believe.
Without wasting a single moment, Shyamalan gets to the business at hand when three girls are kidnapped by a man who looks strange... yeah, strange and driven almost to a Satanic pitch of disintegration and fury. Immediately we know the focus of attention here is Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, a prized discovery.
How do we know Casey is more important to the plot than her two kidnapped friends? Because she sits in the front seat with the kidnapper while the other girls bring up the rear. Yes, "Split" is that kind of a spoon-feeding delight where subtleties are sacrificed for the sake of a frantic celerity. Improbabilities and absurdities are blissfully invited into the plot throwing open the question of art subverting a serious psychological disorder to titillate the audience.
Most of the film's relentlessly riveting two-hour playing-time is a cat-and-mouse game between Taylor-Joy and Avoy, as predictably, the two other girls drop out of the narrative in conveniently spaced-out interludes that suggest a direct link between horror and psychological disorder. No one dies a horrible death. The girls are not sexually assaulted by Kevin, though ironically one of them is attacked routinely in the "normal" world outside her captivity.
Yes, Hitchcock's Norman (from "Psycho") got there first. As played by the Scottish actor McAvoy, the spaced-out Kevin often comes across as a histrionic show off. Many of his personality transformations are undertaken in the spirit of auditions and showreels.
The 23 personalities that McAvoy is said to assume remain provocative ideas underscored by a chilling insinuation. On screen, the myriad personalities come and go with fleeting promises of a more precious truth about a mind that embraces multiple personalities. Tragically, that larger truth which we wait for, is compressed and compartmentalised to provide us with that thrill-a-minute experience which breathes down Shyamalan's downspiralling career's neck.
Many times we end up as confused by McAvoy's very impressive show of acting chops as his therapist played by veteran actress Betty Buckley. A bad-hair day version of Judi Dench, Betty has a role that is the feeblest and most unconvincing thread in Shyamalan's plot. Dr Fletcher holds the key to Kevin's mind-blowing intellectual somersaults. Rather than behave like a responsible member of the medical fraternity, she behaves like any woman in any cheesy horror film walking straight into the dangerous criminal's Google-free lair.
Needless to say, the shrink with her shrunk vision gets bumped off. No, this is not a spoiler. It's a horror thumb-rule.
To his credit, Shyamalan never loses grip over the narrative even when the surprise element slackens and slows down and finally whittles down to a zero. "Split" is remarkably assured in following the rules of a solid cat-and-mouse thriller. The attempts at bringing in a psychological heft by trying to align Casey's current captivity with her childhood predicament is, at best, tenuous.
But then as Bruce Willis's "surprise appearance" at the end of the film proves, life has a way of coming a full circle. That goes for the thriller genre and for those who practise it.
Welcome back, Manoj.
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