The name of M. Night Shyamalan has become one widely scorned, following the nosedive of his career which began sometime around the marketing atrocity of The Village, a romance with a few paranormal elements pedalled as a creature feature. That said, The Sixth Sense remains a strong favourite of mine, and when I saw he had yet another piece scheduled for release I wondered if maybe he’d redeemed himself. No such luck, I fear.
Split, slated to be released in early 2017, tells the story of 3 girls kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder. He has 23 different personalities, some good, some bad. And in advance screenings to critics, it’s done pretty well. It currently holds a score of 78 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, a far cry from the 6 per cent of The Last Airbender. And I’m sure McAvoy’s performance is as fantastic as people are saying – playing 23 different characters in one body, with numerous genders, sexualities, and personalities, is no easy feat. So it’s not the quality of filmmaking I’m apprehensive for here. It’s how, just like in Shyamalan’s 2015 effort The Visit, it ties into a trope unflinchingly common throughout film history – that of the malicious mentally ill.
Cinema has been bad news for this sub-section of society for a while now: whether they’re masquerading as your estranged grandparents who lie slain in the basement, shooting up your school, or stabbing you to death while you’re trying to take a shower in their motel, the message is pretty clear. ‘Mentally ill’ equals violent, dangerous, a collective of individuals who ought to be shunned and feared. Never mind that one in four people in the UK alone will experience some sort of mental health problem each year, without going on to commit some act of ruthless barbarity, or that the majority of violent crimes and homicides are committed by people who do not have any mental health issues. This is a much easier way to string together a plotline. Don’t bother giving the bad guy a genuine, well thought out motive for doing what they do. No need to make things interesting. Just make them crazy and hey presto, an explanation for it all. Good to get that squared away.
Even pictures like Silver Linings Playbook, which are held up as painting a realistic picture of living with mental illness, can’t seem to get it right. This particular film is not the expose on living with bipolar disorder so many have heralded it as being. It’s a romcom which uses mental health as a plot device. The character’s neuroses are romanticised, mental illness used as a charming quirk of personality which brings them together. One of the signs of bipolar disorder seen in protagonist Pat (Bradley Cooper) is that he wakes his parents up in the middle of the night to tell them about how strongly he feels about A Farewell to Arms, frantically gesticulating at the foot of their bed. Because apparently that’s most important thing to take away from any lesson director David O. Russell could have aimed to teach the viewer about manic episodes – primarily it’s just an irritant for anyone else involved. Any distress on behalf of the sufferer comes as an afterthought. Furthermore, despite being the role which won Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar, her character Tiffany is about as one dimensional as they come, a manic pixie dream girl of the highest order, with a dead husband and a dark past (translation: she had some sex), whose main personality trait seems to be that she owns a pair of breasts. She’s cruel and manipulative, and her treatment of Pat at times borders on unforgivable, penning letters to him under the guise of his ex-wife in an effort to keep him under her thumb. Of course, he lets it go as they walk off into the sunset, discarding their wedding rings from relationships past – after all, a little love and affection and depression should dissipate like a cloud in the sunshine, right? Silver Linings Playbook has a different coating on the surface, but underneath it contributes to the same ideology as the aforementioned horror pieces. Mentally ill people hurt those around them. They’re a much bigger danger to others than they are to themselves. Best thing that you avoid them.
To see this on-screen is not only insulting, it’s lazy storytelling. It’s not that the writing of every character in cinema who is both mentally ill and a bad person, or at least does bad things, is an error in judgement. I am not maintaining that all portrayals of mental health on-screen should be poetic What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? affairs, or that a scary movie with a schizophrenic villain or a drama where anxiety makes a character lash out shouldn’t be commissioned, lest it hurt someone’s feelings. Sure, give the antagonist a personality disorder, but don’t make it the only explanation for why they do what they do. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the titular Kevin (Ezra Miller) is clearly not the most stable of individuals, but it’s the poor relationship he has with his mother which is the centrepiece of the film, the catalyst for the events to come, rather than mental illness alone. That’s how it should be done
When mental health issues are presented as the sole cause of the 90-odd minutes of plot one has just digested, it feels cheap. It feels like the filmmakers do not respect their audience. Vulnerable people are used as scapegoats for bad writing. Hollywood could do with realigning its perception of the issue, because right now, it’s not good enough.