M. Night Shyamalan was doing pretty well. He had an interesting, arguably unique thriller plot. He had a protagonist that had an ounce of common sense and a considerable amount of justifiable survival skills. He had a complex, multifaceted antagonist with twenty-one harmless personalities and three misguided ones.
And then he blew it.
Sorry to start things off in medias res, but I have a lot to say about this movie. First of all, I should tell you all what got my butt in that seat, despite the wave of backlash we all saw coming. I feel obligated to keep tabs on Shyamalan’s work, because it confuses me endlessly that the same filmmaker who created the classic thriller The Sixth Sense could also produce the steaming pile of 103 consecutive car accidents that was The Last Airbender. So I went to see Split, and unsurprisingly, I liked it. Shyamalan, if nothing else, definitely has considerable talents in the horror genre. Split had an undeniably creepy atmosphere, created at least a few characters I could care about, and presented a plot that kept me hanging on for the entire runtime. However, it did have a fatal flaw.
“He’s done awful things to people, and he’ll do awful things to you.”
Mental illness as a horror plot is something that’s been used and overused for decades. Filmmakers don’t seem to realize that mentally ill people are really out there, and they go to the movies, too. Nothing hurts more than seeing a character you relate to portrayed as comedic, scary, or just irredeemably wrong, for the reason that you identify with them.
What struck me most about Split is that, for much of the movie, James McAvoy’s character, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder, has an advocate looking out for him and those like him. Dr. Fletcher was the movie’s saving grace, representation-wise. At least there was someone who cared about Kevin (all of him), and tried to spread knowledge and understanding about his condition to the scientific community. I’m not certain all of the information she shared was accurate (correct me if I’m wrong, but the idea of a person changing their body chemistry to develop diabetes, or, say….climb up walls, seems very far-fetched.), but I was glad for her presence. In fact, for a while, it seemed as if Kevin would be portrayed as a redeemable character, since he wasn’t entirely responsible for his crimes. The overwhelming majority of Kevin’s personalities didn’t want to cause anyone harm. Barry, the alter who regulated who fronted before the three insurgent personalities took control, was just a normal man, a confident artist. Even the rebel alters seemed to have reasons for being there. Hedwig, who was vaguely unsettling but definitely the most unintentionally humorous character, was the inner child. Dennis, who came about (and developed OCD) to keep Kevin off his abusive mother’s radar, was the protector. Patricia, a more mysterious (and frankly, the scariest) identity, was the controller.
The concept of a DID character is, in itself, so interesting, it’s really a shame that we haven’t seen much of them outside the horror or comedy genres. (If you know of any good movies or books that involve DID, please tell me in the comments!) There’s so much potential for development and backstory there, that it’s hard to imagine why other filmmakers haven’t taken advantage of it in the past. Maybe if we had a few more visible, sensitive portrayals of DID in the media, movies like Split would seem a bit less harmful.
I had an interesting conversation with my dad the other day, right before I went to see Split. I brought up my concerns about its portrayal of mental illness, and he said that we can’t just eliminate crazy people from horror movies. But my question is, if a person is seriously mentally ill, sees a therapist, takes their meds, and is actively trying to engage in what constitutes a productive life, would you call them “crazy”? Movies that claim to be about mental illness shouldn’t make us laugh at or fear the people who are affected by them. No matter the genre, we should gain insight and understanding, and learn something new. The bottom line is, there are some things that filmmakers should really take care to be accurate about, and this is one of them.
Split wasn’t a bad movie. I’d probably even watch it again. But you should only go and see it with the knowledge that this is not by any means an accurate portrayal of DID. [rant over]
It’s hard to hate M Night, because he can produce good films. However, I am perfectly capable of hating the blatant reference to his other film, Unbreakable, at the end of the movie. If you haven’t watched that 2000 “Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi” (as the film is labeled by IMDb), the scene seems confusing and out-of-place. What are these people talking about? Who is “Mr. Glass”? Why is Bruce Willis in this movie? I was incensed about this part after the credits rolled, but now I’m beginning to understand why it was put in. Apparently there is going to be a Split sequel that crosses into the Unbreakable universe. (Side note: take a look at their IMDb pictures, side-by-side)
Having never seen Unbreakable, I can’t give you a proper rant about this until I actually watch the movie. I’m not even sure if this crossover is good news or bad. So I’ll hit “Publish” and leave it at that.
All in all, I liked Casey as a protagonist. I liked each of Kevin’s alters for different reasons. Dr. Fletcher was an absolute treasure who in no way deserved her fate. The atmosphere of the movie created heart-pounding suspense, especially since Shyamalan keeps the viewers in the dark about the protagonist’s situation for much of the film’s runtime. Stuff like this makes it pretty hard to dislike M Night.
But with the knowledge that he killed off Kevin’s only advocate and still expects to make a profitable sequel, I’ll try.