Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

dir-scr M Night Shyamalan
prd Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum, Ashwin Rajan, M Night Shyamalan
with James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson, M Night Shyamalan, Marisa Brown, Rob Yang
release US/UK 18.Jan.19
19/US Universal 2h09

jackson paulson taylorjoy
See also:
unbreakable (2000) split (2017)

McEvoy and Willis
M Night Shyamalan creates his own own deconstructed cinematic universe by merging characters from Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2017) into an eerily subdued action-horror hybrid. Its relentlessly jarring tone makes it gripping, partly because Shyamalan, as usual, withholds key information to create a mystery that hinges on various revelations. And the actors deliver unusually internalised performances that bring the characters to life.
While Kevin (McAvoy) and his horde of personalities holds four cheerleaders hostage, David (Willis) and his son Joseph (Clark) try to locate his lair and stage a rescue. But Dr Ellie (Paulson) grabs both David and Kevin and locks them in a psychiatric hospital with Elijah (Jackson), determined to convince all three that their superhero identities are delusions. Kevin's former hostage Casey (Taylor-Joy) tries to help, as do Joseph and Elijah's mother (Woodard). But it becomes clear that the connections are deeper and the conspiracy more nefarious than anyone expects.
Shyamalan presents this as a dark drama with freak-out flourishes and subtle effects. This helps keep the story unpredictable, although it's also oddly lacking in momentum. Because he is so deliberately keeping secrets from the audience, scenes progress in elusive ways that are sometimes dull or overstuffed with detail. And because this is Shyamalan, we never bother to try to figure anything out, knowing that he will pull various rugs out from under us. We half expect it to turn out that Willis has been dead the whole time.

The actors play it remarkably straight, even as things get increasingly bonkers. McAvoy gives another tour-de-force as Kevin, shifting between dozens of personalities and having a lot of fun with each incarnation, including the hulking Beast. Paulson has the nuttiest role as a mad doctor indulging in such perplexing experiments and conversations that it quickly becomes obvious that she's up to something. Willis offers a remarkably weighty performance, while Jackson holds himself back before letting rip later on. And both Clark and Taylor-Joy add important layers of emotion and intelligence.

This is a carefully crafted film. But Shyamalan is so determined to unpick the usual superhero tropes, often poking pointed fun at them, that he runs the risk of alienating less adventurous audience members. People who like movies that are easy to watch and digest will struggle with this film's abrasive music (by West Dylan Thordson) and camerawork (by Mike Gioulakis), as well as its complex morality. Others will enjoy the ways it provokes unexpected ideas.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 14.Jan.19

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© 2019 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall