5 02 2017

M. Night Shyamalan makes smarter thrillers than your average Hollywood hired hand (as we’re now allowed to admit again). His latest, “Split,” showcases the director’s skill at using shot composition as a tool far scarier than the shaky cam faux-verité aesthetic plaguing the genre. Shyamalan understands that the artificial and the unnatural possess a deeply unsettling category that many filmmakers neglect to wield.

It’s a great stylistic match for this story, featuring James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with an advanced dissociative personality disorder that enables him to toggle between 23 different personas. The role serves as an obvious exhibition of McAvoy’s considerable range and technical precision; the mastery becomes quite scary when he eventually erupts in a fit of feral rage. His unpredictability makes decisions complicated for the three teenage female victims he kidnaps and imprisons, although one with a similarly dark past (Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey) possesses a special insight that proves valuable in outsmarting his personalities.

“Split” works well when Shyamalan allows it to function as a taut captivity thriller given the unknown variable of Kevin’s ever-shifting identity. He does disrupt the forward progress of that narrative with two separate cutaway stories, however. The first, repeated asides with Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betsy Buckley), sheds light on how he functions not as “less than” regular people but as something greater. The second, which provides background on why Casey seems equipped to handle Kevin, ultimately adds little to the film. I kept waiting for it to come full circle in a signature Shyamalan twist, but … well, without spoiling, the ending serves the filmmaker far more than it serves the film. Red herrings are fine, to be clear, but their worth is questionable when they disrupt the pace of the film to extent that this one does. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Witch

15 02 2016

This review originally appeared on Movie Mezzanine, for whom I covered Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

Forms of storytelling never really die – the functions they serve simply migrate and reappear somewhere else. The folk tale is one such manner of expression that seems rather obsolete in the modern world, not yielding any overtly major works in the past two centuries or so. But director Robert Eggers identifies where they went in “The Witch,” a film that bears the subtitle “A New England Folktale.” The moral panic and blatant grandstanding on right and wrong has found a comfortable home in the horror genre.

Just drawing this parallel is a revelation in and of itself. In many ways, “The Witch” feels like the ultimate movie of its ilk, since it draws such power from returning to the roots of American anxieties. Horror films often stage dichotomies like destiny and fate or good and evil, pitting these two impersonal forces against each other in an often frustratingly nebulous fashion. Eggers finds the terror in calling a spade a spade, explicitly staging his film around the binary conflict to which all others really refer: God vs. Satan.

This open acknowledgment of the dueling forces not only puts us in the mindset of the film’s deeply religious characters – a Puritanical family living on the outskirts of their new colony – but also untethers the story from expectations of reality. Eggers devises a scenario where he can have it both ways, allowing “The Witch” to take place in a very gritty, grounded reality while venturing into the supernatural. The resulting tale plays like the mashup between “The Exorcist” and “The Crucible” that no one knew they needed to see.

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