My main goal in writing film reviews is to entertain you while I tell you about a movie. While I can’t even sniff the same comedic galaxy as Pitch Meeting or Honest Trailers, I do my best to come up with jokes to make your read slightly less boring than the mind-numbingly dull dreck you get from mainstream film critics. While doing a little research on The Northman’s main actor, Alexander Skarsgard, I discovered the name of his character in True Blood is named Eric Northman. That is unbelievable. There is a joke there – I’m sure of it, but I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. I’m sure it would be super easy and barely an inconvenience for Ryan George, but I’m going to need you to get all the way off my back while I try to think of that perfect joke.
(SPOILER ALERT – Plot stuff as usual, plus a huge THANK YOU!! to Mr. George for being hilarious.)
Young Amleth is excited at the return of his father, Viking King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), from weeks of raping, killing, and pillaging. In fact, Amleth is so excited that he bursts in on his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), while she is dressing and receives a scolding for not knocking. The two of them meet Aurvandil as he rides in at the head of his army, then sit with Aurvandil in the throne room as they are presented with the spoils of war. Aurvandil gifts Amleth a gold necklace, then later takes Amleth into the bowels of their temple to perform a ritual where Heimir the fool (Willem Dafoe) drugs them and they bark like dogs while hopping around on all fours. Yeah, it’s weird. I hope you weren’t expecting something straight-laced from the guy who gave us the very weird (and very overrated) The Witch (director Robert Eggers).
The thing is the scene works somehow. It might be because every representation of Vikings ever (and other Others white Europeans regarded as barbarians) shows them as barely more civilized than wolverines, so we just sort of nod along thinking “that’s probably right.” But, we need this representation because Amleth is what Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon would look like if the blue fairy made him a real boy. We need to believe Amleth is capable of growing up and becoming Alexander Skarsgard. And not the Big Little Lies Skarsgard, but The Legend of Tarzan Skarsgard.
Amleth must become this shredded, barking, raging, man-imal because his life becomes a revenge plot after his father is betrayed and murdered by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang). Amleth escapes his own murder attempt and we don’t see him again until he’s a Skarsgard. And boy do we ever see him. It’s some years later and he is hacking and murdering his way through a town with whatever horde of Vikings he finished growing up with. Make no mistake – he looks every bit the animal warrior that little ritual portended him to be. This is a good time to mention that if you have a weak stomach, you are at the wrong movie.
After a whole lot of violence, Amleth is visited by a Seeress (Bjork) who may or may not be a Norse god advising him that the time for his revenge is upon him. Amleth cuts his hair, brands himself with a slave mark, and sneaks on board a slave ship heading for Fjolnir’s village. On this boat, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who continues to be so strikingly beautiful that you start to feel like you aren’t supposed to look directly at her. She claims to be a sorceress herself and we know this is true because she looks like one.
The rest of the film takes place in and around Fjolnir’s village, which lies at the foot of a volcano called Hel. Once there Amleth, with the help of Olga, plots and executes his revenge against Fjolnir and his men. If you weren’t already on the edge of your seat after the intensity of the first half of the film, you’re going to want to make sure seat backs and tray tables are in their upright and locked position because this film has a higher gear. A much higher gear. Norse-God level, if I may.
Aside from the very straight-forward revenge plot, the film does a fantastic job of weaving in some Norse mythology and historical Viking stereotypes, displaying an interpretation of how Vikings may have lived back in the ninth century. They are calling on Odin and Freya the way us modern folks invoke modern gods. Not as formal prayers, but as a part of everyday language. We also see sacrificial offerings to the gods, witches, visions of the future, the mythical Viking berserker rage, and Valkyrie, so…far better than your typical Christian services. And definitely more bloody.
Norse mythology and history is a subject I’ve always wanted to read more about and The Northman is the type of movie that violently shoves me toward actually, finally doing it. As much fun as it is to get the Marvel interpretation, The Northman’s depiction is far more intriguing. As uncomfortable as a couple of the scenes made me, I enjoyed every moment of the film. From the acting, to the production, to the story-telling, to the visuals, to the weirdness, there was never a moment where I thought something might have been done better. Well, maybe Skarsgard’s character’s name. Amleth is no Eric Northman.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, including the food that won’t sit well by the end of the film.
One of the biggest mysteries in Hollywood is how M. Night Shyamalan still has an active directing and writing career. My friend and I pondered this question on our way to a screening of Shyamalan’s latest film, Glass. After The Village disappointed countless fans, Shyamalan rapid-fired four of the worst movies anyone has ever seen – Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. I would like to simply point at box office as the reason he still has a job, but The Happening is the only one that can be considered a box office success, and that one only because the budget was less than $50 million. Considering that film was a summer release with a ton of marketing, that profit was probably low. To be fair, nobody gives him large budgets after the debacles of After Earth and The Last Airbender, but, seriously, has anyone ever coasted so long on one great film (The Sixth Sense)?
(Side note: The budget for Glass is an advertised $20 million. Given the success of Split, it is a near certainty Glass will turn a healthy profit.)
Of course, we would not be having this conversation if James McAvoy had not rescued Shyamalan’s career with McAvoy’s fantastic performance as Kevin Crumb and Kevin’s multiple personalities in 2017’s Split. But, we are. And, speaking of which, Glass is a sequel to Split. Also, Glass is a sequel to Shyamalan’s second film, Unbreakable. You remember that one, don’t you? I don’t. No, really, can you please recap it for me? I remember Bruce Willis was super strong and Samuel Jackson had brittle bones. I remember kind of liking it, but it faded from memory rather quickly. I suppose that was inevitable. After watching five craptastic films in a row (yes, The Visit was also a terrible, terrible film), it is not surprising that my brain tried to wipe away every trace of Shyamalan films, even the ones that were not painful to watch.
I feel like I have been here before, but it is a little hazy.
(SPOILER ALERT – Shyamalan’s streak of solid movies is over at one, with Split. I will have a hard time holding back here.)
For nineteen years, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) has been fighting crime. A joke is made between David and his now grown son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), about the various names David is being referred to (the latest being The Overseer). At one point, he was called The Tip-Toe Man, which does not even begin to approach making sense (at any level of this fictitious world or screenwriting) and the two have a laugh about it. Meanwhile, Kevin “The Horde” Crumb (McAvoy) has kidnapped four girls and getting ready to release The Beast on them (if you missed Split, that means eat them). David and Joseph have been trying to track down Kevin, which leads to a pretty good fight scene to close out the opening act of the film. After battling for a couple minutes, the two are surprised by a group of paramilitary soldiers, led by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) and some flashy lights, and captured. Aside from Dr. Staple being an objectively awful character name, the film is solid up to this point. Then, Shyamalan happens.
David and Kevin are taken to a psychiatric hospital where all good film pacing goes to die. For the next hour-plus, there is talking. And more talking. And flashbacks. And even more talking. Most of the time, Dr. Staple is trying to convince David, Kevin, and Elijah “Mr. Glass” Price (Jackson) that they are not comic book heroes, but that they have a disorder in the frontal lobe of their brain and they have only convinced themselves of their powers. If you are wondering how Mr. Glass got there, do not hold your breath for an answer. He just is. Again, I do not remember how Unbreakable ended, but I seem to recall David simply walking away from Mr. Glass and the film ending (the Internet seems to agree with that). Just accept it, like you do with every other unexplained Shyamalan plot point.
I hope you like lectures.
After approximately nine hours, we finally get to something resembling a plot when it is revealed (and spoiled in the trailers) that Mr. Glass has been faking being sedated and enacts a plot to escape from the ward and reveal the two super humans (David and Kevin) to the world. I had been tolerating the film up to this point, mostly because I had hope for a good climax and ending. After all, Glass is supposedly a movie nineteen years in the making; part three of a planned trilogy. Apparently, my brain did such a great job of erasing bad Shyamalan films that I forgot how terrible he is at concluding films not named The Sixth Sense.
The big showdown we had been promised was like taking a drink of the Coke you ordered and discovering the syrup ran out before they poured it. The fight between David and The Beast features terrible choreography and even worse camera angles and edits. Mostly, they just push each other against a van and try to choke each other. I realize that we are used to seeing comic book characters throwing each other around in CGI-heavy slugfests, but this was pathetic. To make matters worse, a secret organization marked by shamrock tattoos is sprung on the audience, visiting a fate on our three main characters that is best described as fuck you, Shyamalan. Unsatisfying does not even begin to describe the feeling this scene engenders. I mean, I was not one of the eight people waiting nineteen years for this sequel, but I can only imagine how suicidal those eight people will be after watching this dreck.
I just want to fight the Tip Toe Man!!!!
Want to know the bad news? I have not even mentioned the shoddy acting from most of the cast (McAvoy, Willis, and Jackson are just fine, at least), another worthless and self-indulgent cameo scene by Shyamalan himself, some truly atrocious dialogue (Kevin to Mr. Glass – “what do I call you?” Mr. Glass – “First name Mister. Last name Glass”), and the massive plot holes typical of Shyamalan films that are required for the big reveal at the end to work (albeit not much of a reveal in the case of this film).
Just to give you one example of a plot hole you have to swallow, the Beast is kept at bay by the flashy lights, which force a personality change in Kevin every time they flash him. As my friend pointed out after the movie, why didn’t he just close his eyes? Or put a pillow over his eyes and murder everyone in the facility. This one thing alone, makes the film at least three levels worse and is on par with the absurdity of an alien race deathly allergic to water invading a planet covered in water while wearing no clothes.
I mean, how you do defeat lights!? LIGHTS!
The worst part of this whole film was seeing the bones of a potentially great movie in Glass and watching those bones get chewed into tiny bits by Shyamalan’s lack of writing and directing skills. Actually, the worst part of this film was Shyamalan trying to replicate the not-a-comic-book-but-really-is-a-comic-book movie aspect of Unbreakable, but beat the audience over the head with constant acknowledgements of it being a comic book movie. Like how Scream was aware of itself being a horror film, but bad like the Scream sequels. One of these days, we are going to figure out how Shyamalan’s career has survived so many terrible films. But, for now, I am hoping to remember this film so that when the inevitable next sequel comes out, I am fully prepared for crap again.
Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back. McAvoy keeps this film from being a complete waste of time.
If the current Rotten Tomatoes score (78%) holds for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, Split, it will be the highest score he has received for any movie not named The Sixth Sense (85%). Unlike his previous film, The Visit (64%), Split has mostly earned that score. It’s definitely better than every Shyamalan film since at least Unbreakable and I’m not saying that sarcastically. One audience member wondered if it was really the second best or actually the second least-worst. Either way, you won’t leave the theater wishing you had a voodoo doll of Shyamalan along with a hammer.
(Side note: Shyamalan directed, wrote, produced, and even cameoed in this film.)
There are several things that you need to know about this movie, including that some critics are lying to you. For starters, any talk about Shyamalan’s comeback is wildly premature. Despite The Visit’s favorable score, that movie was terrible on multiple levels, many of which were technical and writing-based. Thankfully, Split does not suffer from many of those , and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because Shyamalan got a talking-to. Don’t get me wrong, there are still issues that he needs to work on. For one example, the title cards in the opening credits are enormous white letters on flat black. Who does that? I had to look away from the screen to avoid burning my retinas.
Another bizarre thing I’ve seen is critics crediting the lead actor, James McAvoy, with portraying 23 different personalities. Here’s the opening line of Peter Travers’ (Rolling Stone) review:
“James McAvoy acts the hell out of 23 roles in Split…”
James McAvoy does no such thing. Throughout the entire movie, McAvoy predominantly plays four roles and cameos another five. If you don’t already know about this film, McAvoy plays a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In other words, he has 23 different personalities, and the aforementioned “roles” are some of those personalities. The only reason we know there are twenty-three is because his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), tells us and, later in the film, we see a computer screen with file folders numbered with each personality. Travers is either lying to his readers or he is terrible at math. My point is that I won’t lie to you. I swear.
(If there’s one thing I’m brutally honest about, it’s SPOILERS. There will be some.)
Now that I’ve told you about the main character, who’s legal name is Kevin Crumb….wait – we can’t just let that go. That’s a pretty on-the-nose character name you normally only find in comic books. In this case, Crumb because he’s only a fraction of the whole and he’s basically been discarded by the other personalities. *SIGH* Anyway, Kevin has abducted three high school girls (Casey, Claire, and Marcia) from a mall parking lot in broad daylight and nobody noticed. You have to excuse how badly this scene was directed, particularly the reactions of these girls to a strange man sitting in the driver’s seat, which is far too calm and bitchy. Anyway, the girls wake up later in a bunker-ish room and are confronted by Dennis, one of Kevin’s personalities. Dennis selects one of the girls, Marcia (Jessica Sula), and takes her out of the room, but not before Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) tells Marcia to pee on herself. Dennis quickly returns Marcia and is disgusted at the pee because he has OCD.
I bring up this detail because Dr. Fletcher will point out to another of Kevin’s personalities, Barry (who is actually Dennis pretending to be Barry, and it’s not subtle), that they (they being the collective of personalities referred to as “the horde”) previously got in trouble for wanting to force girls to dance naked. This little tidbit of information never comes back into play in the movie, and that is poor writing. Why draw attention to something if you aren’t going to use it later? Incidentally, this is one of those unfixed flaws I mentioned earlier.
When Dennis returns to the bunker, he apologizes to the girls and tells them they mustn’t be spoiled for the beast. Thus we get the true endgame of Dennis and another personality, Patricia, and learn what these girls have to be afraid of – what we can only assume is another personality that is some kind of monster. I’d like to tell you the rest of the movie is the girls trying to figure out how to escape while dealing with twenty-three different personalities, but then I’d be lying.
While the movie moves along fairly well, it continues to step all over any tension by jumping between therapy sessions, the girls, and Casey’s flashbacks to a hunting trip with her dad and uncle. This is a good time to mention that Shyamalan decided to give Casey a tortured past because nearly all of his characters have to have tortured pasts they must overcome, and he almost always fumbles that part of his characters. This time around is no different. Casey’s flashbacks reveal an abusive uncle whom she points a shotgun at, but can’t pull the trigger. One more flashback shows us said uncle getting custody of Casey after her father’s untimely death and no more flashbacks after that. So, the point of all those flashbacks was to show that Casey overcomes her ability to…fire a shotgun? Wait, that can’t be right – let me check my memory. *Too much time passes* Yep, that’s right. She never takes revenge on her uncle, and the kidnapping situation doesn’t involve sexual assault, so that whole tortured past thing is meaningless. Again, why introduce ideas, then discard them at the end? Overcoming kidnapping is pretty serious and the tension from wondering if they are going to get out of there is more than enough for this film. But Shyamalan just has to swing away, doesn’t he?
Getting back to the trampled tension, the therapy sessions are good for exposition but bad for tension. Every time the film cuts away from the girls, the tension stops because we know they aren’t in danger at that time. Also stepping all over the tension is Shyamalan’s attempt at trying to lighten the mood while trying to make it creepy at the same time with a personality named Hedwig who is nine years old. It kinda-sorta works – the audience was laughing at Hedwig, and McAvoy nailed the personality, but it never builds any tension. Really, Hedwig is just good for more exposition and being a little zany, and you never get the idea that he is going to help the girls out. As a matter of fact, none of the personalities try to help the girls out, which is the big fail of this story and the final reason why the tension is missing. Don’t you think that if you create a character that’s actually twenty-three characters, you should use more than three of them? Me too.
Luckily for Shyamalan, McAvoy puts this movie on his shoulders and carries it for its entire running time. McAvoy does such a great job of portraying the four main personalities (that includes the beast) that it seems as if it’s really four different actors that all look like McAvoy. He’s also so great that you don’t notice how mediocre are the rest of the actors’ performances. Heck, you might even forgive the parts of the screenplay I just dissected for you. But, as one of my Movie Fixers podcast co-hosts said (shameless plug), just because an actor gives a great performance, doesn’t make the movie great. That’s this movie in a nutshell.
Before I leave you and since you’ve been so patient and read all this way, it’s time to answer the question you really want to ask – is there another goddam Shyamalan twist? The answer is yes, but the details depend on who you ask. I suspect most people are going to think the twist is the very last thing you see in the movie, but that isn’t a twist, it’s a teaser. Other people will say it’s the reveal of the beast, but they literally tell you about that one beforehand (even if you aren’t really paying attention you’ll catch it). In my opinion, the twist is the reveal of where Kevin is keeping the girls (also where he lives) because it doubles as an explanation for one of the personalities. I waited the entire film to find this out and was sorely disappointed. But, I won’t ruin that for you because it isn’t so bad that it ruins the film. I know I and many others have been really hard on Shyamalan in the past, but this film shows that while he has a lot of work still to do, he has figured a few things out. Just remember, it’s the least-worst film he’s made in years.