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Split Image
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by Jack Sommersby

"Heavy-Handed and Obvious"
2 stars

If you haven't heard of this, don't be surprised, for the studio, having little faith in it, sporadically released it in U.S. theaters, which, considering how lackluster it is, wasn't exactly a bad thing.

Split Image is a well-meaning but unconvincing melodrama that stars the talented Michael O’Keefe as Danny Stetson, the high-school captain of his gymnastics team who finds himself brainwashed into a dangerous cult and eventually put through the psychological hell of deprogramming to bring him back to normal. As the movie opens, we see Danny feverishly practicing for the upcoming championship, twisting and turning on the high bar yet not managing to make that crucial landing; but when the time comes he succeeds in garnering a perfect score from the judges, which is captured on video camera by his supportive parents (Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Ashley) enthusiastically cheering him in the stands. (Danny, we're meant to see, is in his absolute prime.) We're then introduced to Danny's home life in a high-class suburb where the neighborhood paperboy delivers via his mother stopping at each residence in her Mercedes, their pet attends an exclusive dog school, and the household employs a maid who caters to the family’s every demand. And from this we’re intended to see that Danny has led quite the privileged, pampered life, which his always-wisecracking self constantly makes lighthearted comments on. It’s Danny’s senior year, and when pressed by his father as to his college major the unfocused Danny balks that he’s being pressured; later that afternoon a cute young woman, Rebecca (Karen Allen), locks eyes with him at a restaurant, comes over to him, and positively enchants him. Rebecca is vague about what she does for a living, aside from mentioning that she does volunteer work for a local charity, and Danny, smitten, agrees to attend a three-day retreat with her up in the mountains. (We’ve already been shown that Danny has a girlfriend, who showed him support during the championship, but she’s inexplicably dropped for the sole sake of moving the story along.) It turns out the compound, Homeland, is a vast complex with hundreds of followers that has strict rules: only organically-grown food is allowed; parents of the followers who show up at the gate are refused admittance, and there’s absolutely no sexual contact. When Danny asks if this is a religious cult, Rebecca replies, “You can call it a cult so you don’t have to understand what’s going on here.” The guru in charge of it all is one Neil Kirklander (Peter Fonda), a megalomaniac with a quietly disarming manner and knack for cannily mesmerizing his flock; when he asks Danny who he is, and Danny says he’s Danny Stetson, Neil asks, “No, who are you?” While Danny concedes that Neil has a point in that a person’s internal fulfillment is important, he instinctively points out that he hasn’t heard any answers. When Danny is caught masturbating at night in his bed by a dorm monitor, he’s told he’s turned himself into a prostitute and is “taking away from yourself.” Before the three days are up, Danny tries to leave the compound but is chased and captured by three of the members, yet he finally succumbs to Neil, relinquishing his name and being reborn as “Joshua,” with most of his hair cut off to complete the transformation. And when his concerned parents show up, Danny tells them he refuses to go back to their materialistic life, and then the deprogrammer Charles Pratt (James Woods) is enlisted by the family to kidnap Danny and “clear” him.

In his previous performances in Caddyshack and The Great Santini, O’Keefe came off as a first-rate, intelligent actor with an emotional accessibility that allowed the audience to yield to him, which is both a merit and a demerit in Split Image in that he’s still appealing but burdened with a woefully underwritten part that makes Danny slow on the uptake later on down the line, and since his is the central role it throws the movie fatally out of whack. Initially, Danny’s bullshit detector seems to be fully functioning, and since he’s not alienated from his parents and his parents are decent-hearted people attentive to his needs, it’s simply not plausible that he’d be even remotely susceptible to neither Rebecca nor Neil -- the scenes that would give credence to this seem to have been left on the cutting-room floor. Allen, a dull, humorless actress, just isn’t luminous enough (Pamela Gidley, who played the pregnant teen in Tex, and who plays a disciple here, makes a much more indelible impression in a mere two scenes), and Fonda, never known for his charisma, is too laid-back and lacks the necessary dynamism to be persuasive (he’s still doing that dull-as-dishwater underplaying from Easy Rider that barely registers as “acting”). Then again, the substandard screenplay, co-written by Endless Love novelist Scott Spencer, making his debut here, deals mostly in generalities and fuzzy plot points that render the proceedings downright discombobulated -- it comes off as a first draft not having been given a few good goings-over by an astute writer who would’ve called attention to its numerous flaws. Split Image is the kind of social-minded “subject film” that was turned out in the 1950s, particularly by the legendary Samuel Fuller; it thinks that because it’s “about” something that the lack of sound dramatic underpinnings can be excused when we’re actually left with nothing more than a mere thesis that doesn’t bother with nuance and complexity. That Homeland is a scam doesn’t come as particularly revelatory as we witness Danny and Rebecca soliciting donations for flowers in the name of charities that don’t exist, and that this cult is rendering its followers clueless, unquestioning patsies is taking the easy way out. (Couldn’t we see that these people were at least getting something remotely positive out of the experience?) As it plays out, we don’t see how Homeland is able to get its claws into its people, so the movie isn’t really grounded in anything and can only try to sustain itself with half-baked elements that fail to coalesce. And the second half, which details Danny’s abduction and subjection to the manic Pratt’s controversial methods, are no less odious. Slapping Danny around and subjecting him to constant emotional turmoil, Pratt (forcefully played by Woods) is intended to be seen as just as ruthless as Neil (he even makes sure to tell Danny’s parents that he lives in a “shithole” of a trailer park so as to draw a stark contrast between his and the Stetsons’s class barrier), but from what we see we can’t buy into Pratt’s breaking through to Danny anymore than Neil’s. The jejune Split Image is an appalling-looking production, which is a shame because a few months prior the same director, Ted Kotcheff, lent visual suppleness and technical virtuosity to the Sylvester Stallone action picture First Blood; here, it were as if Kotcheff had left it all up to an inept second-unit director while he was busy negotiating his next project in the plush confines of his trailer.

Delves about as deep into its subject as a paper cut.

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originally posted: 05/09/15 22:50:44
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  03-Oct-1982 (R)



Directed by
  Ted Kotcheff

Written by
  Robert Kaufman
  Scott Spencer

  Michael O'Keefe
  Karen Allen
  Peter Fonda
  James Woods
  Brian Dennehy

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