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Hipster Holy Grail: Split Image (1982)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

It's kind of tricky to make a good representation of a cult, so I appreciate it whenever a movie realistically gets across crucial details.  In the case of Split Image, there's also some good acting to back it up.  Unlike many HHG entries, this film isn't particularly wacky, nor is it a B-movie; it is a genuinely good drama that was strangely overlooked.  Definitely seek this one out.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Bit Where I'm Surprised by the Cast

I've got a lot to ramble about today - I feel like I just love talking about cults, for some reason.  I wonder why? - so I'll keep my introduction brief.

Actually, it's not even an introduction as much as it is confusion.  I want to know how the hell this movie slipped under the radar for so many years that I didn't even hear about it (let alone see it) until this year.

It's a good movie that stars Karen Allen, Brian Dennehy, Peter Fonda, and James Woods?  Any one of those actors should've been enough to bring this on the public's radar.  I have no idea why nobody's watched this.

The Bit Where I Summarize the Plot

Danny (Michael O'Keefe) is an average, albeit wealthy, American teenager who is nearly finished with high school and is starting to thinking about his long-term goals.  Things are definitely bright: he's an excellent gymnast, he has great parents, Kevin (Brian Dennehy) and Diana (Elizabeth Ashley), and also he's rich.  Did I mention the wealthy part?

(Quick derail:  It's not actually a major plot point, but the movie really glosses over the fact that Danny is a rich boy.  Cults prey on people from all kinds of backgrounds and I feel like there'd be more suspense if the parents didn't have any money on their side.  I'd complain more about it, but the movie seems to care very little about this, so I'll drop it.)

One day Danny is out at a club and sees Rebecca (Karen Allen) across the room.  He is immediately smitten and wants to learn all about her.  At first she seems like just another average (possibly rich) type; she's well-rounded, friendly, warm, and has an outgoing personality.  She mentions that she's part of a group called "Homeland" that she'd love to introduce to Danny.

He's reluctant at first, but he agrees to go on a three-day retreat to the Homeland camp / compound, where he meets dozens - maybe hundreds - of Rebecca's friends.  They greet Danny with open arms and sing hymns, which creeps him out and gives him a terrible feeling.  Soon he meets their charismatic mentor (i.e., Glorious Leader), Neil Kirklander (Peter Fonda), who takes a liking to Danny.

Long story short, the three-day retreat gradually extends day-by-day until Danny finally decides to join Homeland.  They rejoice and christen him "Joshua," telling him that "Danny" is dead.

Danny/Joshua makes a farewell phone call to his parents, who don't take it seriously at first.  This leads to a great scene with some classic Dennehy grouchiness where he confronts the cultists and demands to have Danny returned to him - only to get arrested for trespassing on Homeland property.

Homeland, unfortunately, has deep pockets and a strong legal team.  It is not possible to get Danny free from their grasp unless he willingly leaves - which seems unlikely.  So Kevin and Diana turn to what seems to be their only solution: Charles Pratt (James Woods), a professional kidnapper and de-programmer.

In a movie that's already filled with great character actor moments, Woods steals every scene he's in by playing up just the right mix of sleaze, condescension, self-deprecation, and empathy.  If you're not interested in movies about cults, you'll probably still want to see Split Image just for him.

Roughly the second half of the movie is spent showing Pratt do what he does best as he kidnaps Danny/Joshua and locks him in a boarded-up house, then proceeds to berate him for days on end.  This sequence contains both the best and worst parts of the movie.  On the one hand, you've got great performances and some interesting morally-grey scenes.  On the other hand, there's a few cheesy special effects to show Danny/Joshua's point of view, in which he sees Pratt as a literal demon, which looks laughably awful.

I'm hesitant to describe much more of the film in part because I hate to spoil everything and in part because so much of it just works better visually.  But I will say this: it is not a simple movie.  One of its greatest strengths is that it maintains a sense of moral ambiguity throughout, which I appreciate.  In fact, let's talk about that now.

The Bit Where I Talk About Moral Complexity

It would be easy to make a movie about cults that openly condemns everything about cults.  But it would also be one-sided and overly-simplistic.  Obviously cults can't be openly awful or they wouldn't work.  People join cults specifically because they offer a positive, life-affirming experience.  The fact that this experience is paired with crippling social devastation, financial ruin, and potential physical maladies doesn't take away from the fact that there's still a high.

Split Image wisely portrays the benefits and perceived happiness of belonging that come with Danny's transformation into "Joshua" even as it criticizes Homeland overall.  Similarly, the plight of Danny's parents is grounded in real, empathetic pain, but their solution is cruel, at times abusive, and as a whole unpleasant.

That's not to say that there aren't moral conclusions to be drawn from the film - in no way does it ever commend or glorify Homeland.  The cult is always, at heart, a force of menace and terror even while it is superficially loving and kind.  And this isn't to say that I think cults as a whole must be accepted or tolerated - after all, any cult is still a cult and is, by definition, evil.

But the amazing thing about Split Image is that its heroes use the exact same tactics as its villains to influence Danny.  Homeland abducts and isolates Danny?  Pratt does it right back.  Homeland uses mindless chants to worm into Danny's brain?  Pratt does it right back.  Homeland uses sexuality as a point of derision to break down Danny's self-esteem?  Pratt does it right back, but with a hell of a lot more panache.

It's like making a movie about a guy who rescues torture victims and fixes them via amputation.  If it was the only way you could ensure the victims live, then you'd find a way to accept it, but wouldn't you keep questioning the need to hack off both legs?

Ironically - though intentionally - Pratt's treatment is presented as a far more destructive and agonizing experience than Danny's initiation into Homeland.  It's incredibly effective because it feels a lot more realistic; after all, you wouldn't join a cult if you knew it was going to painful, would you?  Which brings me to my next point.

The Bit Where I Talk About Cults

One of the greatest things about Split Image's ambiguity is that it encourages a more mature and constructive approach to the psychology of cult recruitment.

People too often dismiss cults as silly or ridiculous.  They're usually the punchline in a joke or dismissed through some snide comment as if you can be immune to the allure and never fall victim.  It's possibly the worst attitude you can have; the easiest way to get hurt is to assume you're invincible.

In fact, Split Image even illustrates this by having Danny antagonize the cult outright when he first goes to the Homeland compound.  He is put off by the singing and dancing.  He questions the point of everything they do.  He directly calls them out on being a cult and tries to keep himself at a distance.  Even so, he succumbs.

I will criticize the movie a bit here because I think his transformation is a bit too brief.  It may simply be that the film doesn't communicate just how much time passes between Danny's first exposure to Homeland and his decision to become "Joshua."

Despite the brevity of this sequence, the tactics used are realistic and devastating: First, they isolate him.  Second, they starve him.  Third, they chant and overwhelm him with simplistic, repetitive ideas.  Fourth, they remain happy and positive.  Finally - and most importantly - they claim to have answers. All the other stuff is a good way to break somebody's will if they're reluctant to convert, but you don't always need it.  What you really need, no matter how you get it across, is a charismatic and definite Solution to Everything.

There obviously isn't a Solution to Everything, but wouldn't it be great if there was?  It's perhaps the only thing we can all agree that we want.  Split Image keeps this in mind even as it respects us enough to acknowledge that we would find cults creepy.  The lesson to take away is that no matter how "obvious" it seems that something is a bad idea, you can still be tempted to follow somebody who seems to know what they're doing.

After all, that's pretty much how your boss got his job, isn't it?

The Bit Where I Compare It to Sound of My Voice

A long time ago I reviewed Sound of My Voice. It's a solid and well-made thriller in purely cinematic terms, but I have deep moral problems with it since it doesn't take a hard enough anti-cult stance.

(You can read the review to learn more, but basically the ending needlessly and harmfully attempts to instill a sense of uncertainty about the reality of the world.  I can usually enjoy a movie even if I don't agree with its politics, but this goes beyond basic political opinion.  It's like making a realistic movie about depression and ending it with the protagonist drinking a gallon of bleach, but instead of dying, she ends up "curing" her brain and living happily ever after.)

Since this is now the second time in a year I've decided to review a movie that is explicitly about a cult, it's easy to draw comparisons.  I think Split Image is the stronger of the two - and not just because of my self-righteous outrage.  It is overall a more accurate depiction of cult behavior and human beings in general.

I might go so far as to say that the two movies are polar opposites:  SI is about a vocal, smiling, huge cult with an active media presence that advertises where their compound is based and tries to keep people there to ensure their brainwashing is effective.  SoMV is about a quiet, grim-faced, tiny cult that operates in secret, refuses to allow initiates to stay in the compound for very long, and attempts brainwashing only in little spasms.  SI presents a group of positively-minded people who cheer each other on and promise great, life-affirming change via slogans, chants, and teamwork.  SoMV presents a single sickly woman who thinks the world is dying and challenges her converts by belittling them into submission, promising that if they don't join, they will wallow in ignorance and death.

Ultimately they are both terrifying.  My understanding is that most cults use a combination of the tactics portrayed in both movies.  But the main difference between the two films - and the one that puts Split Image a step above - is the sense of conspiracy.

No doubt there are cults out there now with high-ranking members who are conspiring in all kinds of creepy ways - read about Operation Freakout and prepare to be horrified.  Even so, Scientology does not keep itself secret.  Nor does the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Nor Seventh-Day Adventists.  Nor Aum Shinrikyo.  Nor any other cult.

Cults simply cannot survive if they operate wholly in secret.  They require fresh blood on a regular basis.

The entire structure of a cult is such that a few powerful personalities on the top squeeze mindless submission out of a large group of people.  Once somebody is dried out, somebody new comes in to replace them.  Sound of My Voice seems kind of silly in retrospect because of this very reason - how the hell does the cult even have an operating budget if they're so willing to kick out new converts and if the recruitment process is so rigorous?

Split Image perfectly captures the most terrifying thing about cults: they're seemingly unstoppable because they aren't hiding in secret.  They'll come right up to you and happily tell you all about their club and why you should join.  Maybe they'll be a little bit selective in recruitment based on race or ethnicity or gender, but they're still open to new members.  The entire time they ruin lives, their members never once stop to wonder if what they're doing is a mistake.  They are a force of evil that is simply unaware of the damage they cause.

You can watch Split Image on Youtube.