Tag Archives: It Follows

Split (2017)

The words “M. Night Shyamalan” used to elicit groans or sighs. After releasing often laughably bad films through the late 2000s he returned in 2015 with The Visit, his first movie in a very long time to receive anything close to favorable reviews. While that film wasn’t a complete success and lacked some of his strongest talents because of the found footage shooting style, it did show hope for his future. With Split, Shyamalan has created his true return to form. Leaving a birthday party, three teenage girls, led by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as Casey, are kidnapped and awaken in a locked room. A stern man (James McAvoy; X-Men: First Class) enters their room and tells them not to worry because they will be taken care of. In other scenes, this same man is seen by his psychiatrist for dissociative identity disorder (DID). He has 23 total personalities, each with their own behavior and, according to his shrink, their own physiology. During their meetings he reveals that there is a 24th personality about to emerge.

The entire film rests on the shoulders of James McAvoy. With so much asked of him and so much of the runtime centered around his performance, a failing on his part would have easily crippled the movie. Fortunately, he is up to the task. Many actors would have relished an opportunity like this to show off their acting abilities, but McAvoy successfully juggles the disparate roles with aplomb. As he switches personalities, his accent, his mannerisms, and his overall presence completely changes. While it could be considered comical to see him dressed as a woman in high heels, McAvoy’s physical stature and commitment make it an unsettling sight. He is able to engender sympathy as he plays the child personality, Hedwig, then moments later fear as Dennis, the personality that kidnapped the girls. His adaptability is praiseworthy.

The dank interiors are the perfect setting for a kidnapping.

Shyamalan’s early films greatly benefited from strong direction and blocking and Split is no different. Camera movements are smooth and the sets are built to instill claustrophobia. Shyamalan hired Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer of It Follows, to shoot this film and the effect is obvious. There is a noticeable improvement to the lighting and colors from The Visit and it helps establish the atmosphere. That being said, Split does not have the dread of Shyamalan’s best work. He is able to create tension in several scenes but isn’t able to maintain the suspense throughout. This is caused by the other two girls and a problematic backstory for Casey that distract and detract from the desired mood.

Sadly, any review of the director’s work will always need to answer one question: is there a twist? The answer in this case is not really. The film is fairly straightforward in its story and never hints at a hidden subtext. The ending will leave some viewers incredulous, but it is believable within the context of the film. The real surprise of the film comes as a stinger at the very end. It isn’t a twist, but it recontextualizes the narrative in the best way possible and hints at a very exciting path for Shyamalan’s next films. While Split isn’t his best work, it provides a welcome recovery of the director’s trademark style.

4/5 stars.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

Home invasion films are a well-worn genre, but Don’t Breathe makes  a smart twist on the formula. Imagine Home Alone from the perspective of the robbers, only instead of Macaulay Culkin setting traps it was an old, murderous man.

Alex (Dylan Minnette; Prisoners), Rocky (Jane Levy; Evil Dead), and Money (Daniel Zovatto; It Follows) are three 20-somethings making their living robbing homes and selling the goods on the black market. Alex’s dad runs a home security firm, so they are able to get passcodes and keys to enter and exit houses unnoticed. Rocky and Money have the intention of leaving town if they can get the funds, but they aren’t making enough off each house. Fortunately, they get a tip about an old man (Stephen Lang; Avatar) who won a six figure cash settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident by a wealthy teenager. He lives by himself in a mostly empty part of town and supposedly has the settlement money inside. The best part is the man is blind, so it’s an easy job…or is it?

Like the recent horror hit It FollowsDon’t Breathe uses modern day Detroit as its setting. Maybe it says more about the economic situation of the city than anything else, but the graffiti covered facades and overgrown lawns of the long abandoned neighboring properties hint at the situation to come. Why would someone, especially someone with a large sum of money, still live in a place like that?

As the team breaks into the house, director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) establishes the setting. It would be easy for the movie to feel like a bottle film, restricted to one main location because of financial reasons not creative ones, but that is not the case. The home has a maze-like architecture and Alvarez uses impressive cinematography early on to explore it. The camera weaves in and out of rooms, rarely cutting, and lingers on objects bound to be of importance later. These shots lay the foundation for the film and inform the audience of the possibilities that exist. In less skilled filmmaking, plot twists feel cheap and convenient, but here each twist is subtly foreshadowed early on. You may have an idea that something will be important, but chances are you won’t be able to guess how.

Lang animal-like behavior is always frightening.
Lang’s bestial behavior is always frightening.

The blind man is not what he seems and the team of robbers soon find themselves in trouble. Lang dominates the screen with his intensity. He becomes animal-like. Lang rarely speaks and relies on his other senses to find the robbers. He sticks his nose in the air and sniffs like a feral wolf searching for prey. Unlike the intruders, he knows his house intimately and takes full advantage of this as he walks through the halls feeling his way across the house.

His blindness makes for incredibly tense encounters. In most home invasion films, the characters are only worried that they will be spotted, but here they have to be wary of a tiny creak of the wood floors setting off Lang’s hypersensitive hearing. It also makes for near misses that come uncomfortably close to confrontations. Lang can’t see his uninvited guests and often moves within inches of them.

Lang’s sheer physicality makes him a terrifying threat. He is revealed to be a veteran whose sinewy arms and fast, focused movements show his prowess. At one point during my screening a woman shouted “He’s worse than the Terminator!” and she was right. Lang’s efforts are unrelenting and the justice he delivers is unforgiving.

In the last act, the film layers on multiple twists that will divide audiences. Some may view them as unrealistic while others will see them as depraved and unnecessary. Each additional wrinkle pulls the story further away from believable and turns Lang from a man to a monster, reducing the credibility the film had established. Yet, Lang is able to overcome these missteps. Even as the third act falters,  the strong setup, creative encounters, and Lang’s presence make Don’t Breathe a film of often unbearable tension.

4/5 stars.