Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy
Length: 1hr 57m
This review contains spoilers.
Oh, M. Night. The man notorious for being everybody’s least favourite director is back, with a shockingly successful film. Said shock stems largely from the fact that, since 2002’s Signs, everything Shyamalan’s coughed up onto our screens has been panned by both critics and audiences alike. The man quickly spiralled from the era-defining filmmaker he looked set to become after the success of The Sixth Sense, to a more mainstream Tommy Wiseau, people flocking to the cinema with the sole aim to incredulously point and laugh, instead of appreciate.
His work became so consistently poor that it was a wonder any studio was prepared to still give him funding, and this has obviously contributed to Split quite clearly being a low budget affair. Still, low budget is hardly synonymous with low quality.
Split follows the story of Kevin (James McAvoy), a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. So extreme is his condition that instead of having the usual two or three discordant personalities, he has 23. A handful of these personalities go rogue and kidnap three teenage girls. Casey, Claire, and Marcia, (respectively played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) are held captive in a sparsely furnished windowless cave of a room, having no idea why they are there, or how long they will be kept. Meanwhile in the outside world, the antagonistic personalities within Kevin must dedicate their efforts to making sure their therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), doesn’t cotton on to what’s happening. This is a feat which proves tricky when the other personalities inside Kevin’s head realise what’s going on. In the brief moments when they are able to “take the light” and be the dominant personality in charge of Kevin’s body, they keep emailing her begging for help.
McAvoy in the role of Kevin is truly outstanding. An entire star in the rating for this film must be credited to his performance. He’s convincing as Dennis, sexually corrupt germaphobe, Patricia, psychotic upper-class English lady, and Hedwig, sinister yet sweet nine year old with a speech impediment. Each personality is distinguishable from the rest through various quirks of accent and micro expressions. It’s clear he’s put his heart and soul into the role, and it’s paid off. Particularly striking is a scene where Dennis is masquerading as Barry, a completely different personality knocking around inside Kevin’s skull. It’s fascinating watching him balance the two characters at once, and if this film’s US release had been during award season, it would have been a travesty to not have seen McAvoy nominated.
Also lending a formidable talent to the piece, It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis was charged with visualising the film, and his influence is clear from the get go. The camerawork is brilliantly claustrophobic, with an extremely effective use of wide shots in what are clearly supposed to be tiny, cramped spaces, which has a chilling way of pulling you right into the scene. The film would not be what it is without his contribution, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work in the future.
This, really, is where my praise of the piece must end. Because Split is yet another film which uses mental illness as a plot device. Plenty of horror-inspired films have used struggles with mental illness to flesh out their characters – Black Swan uses disturbing body-horror visuals to portray the crumbling of Natalie Portman’s psyche. And this film is successful because we see how the illness torments the afflicted, Portman’s Nina just as afraid of her own hallucinations as the audience is. However, here the antagonist of the piece is not an individual with multiple personality disorder who has an actual, external motivation for his actions. He is motivated purely by the fact that he has a mental illness. It turns out the three bad-guy personalities, Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig, have conspired to kidnap the girls because a 24th personality is emerging, a cannibalistic, wall-scaling monster known as The Beast, and when he finally “takes the light” and is in charge of Kevin’s body, the girls will provide him with something to eat.
Split takes a rare but reported phenomenon of individuals with DID whose alternate personalities have different physical and mental abilities to a cartoonish extreme. The film transforms a mentally ill man into a malignant supernatural entity; the whole point of the film is that because he is mentally ill, he has transformed into a literal demon. It’s one of the most vilifying portrayals of mental illness in years, and the reveal in the closing moments that the entire film has taken place in the same universe as Unbreakable, a superhero universe, does little to counter this. Sure, the genre allows for a slight bending of the rules when it comes to the limits of what the human body can achieve – Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix features a blind hero with such heightened senses that his disability is hardly an impairment at all – but this goes far beyond a suspension of disbelief and into the realms of simply being insulting.
Mental illness has a place in the horror genre, sure. To feel that you are at the random whims of your own brain chemistry, rather than vice versa, that your senses cannot be trusted, is an overwhelming and terrifying experience; the monster in The Babadook can be interpreted as a physical manifestation of depression and grief, and the film perfectly presents how isolating and frightening this experience can be. And that’s how it should be being used as part of a horror plotline – as a horrifying thing, rather than a thing which makes a person horrifying.
Not only does Split exploit individuals with DID, it also exploits childhood abuse and self harm – as we see through a series of awkwardly handled flashbacks, which provide necessary backstory for Casey but could have been exposed far more gracefully through a conversation she has with her trapped counterparts instead, our heroine was sexually abused by her uncle as a child. Kevin, too, was we see in a 20 second clip of his mother screaming his name and brandishing a coathanger, was abused in some form also. The Beast has spent the entire film preparing to tear Casey limb from limb and eat her, when he sees a number of self-injury scars on her arms and stomach, and immediately lets her go, declaring that she is “pure” for having suffered immense mental anguish too, whereas the other girls held captive with her, to his knowledge, had not experienced any significant trauma (although being held captive by a dangerous supernatural entity who is planning to eat you alive ought to cover it, really). It seems that if you’ve undergone trauma you are forever set apart from your peers, somehow Other and different to them. The trauma of childhood abuse and Casey’s resulting suffering is a mere plot device, an explanation for her survival, her Final Girl status, rather than really adding anything, and it sensationalises trauma to an entirely unacceptable degree.
Don’t bother seeing this film, unless you’re a McAvoy completionist and want to see his latest oeuvre. It’s exploitative, and does a disservice to the mentally ill and trauma victims alike, as well as the multitude of people who fit into both of these categories. Sure, the acting is impressive and it’s a pretty film to look at, but any appreciation I had of these two factors is far outweighed by my distaste for literally everything else.