Originally published on February 6, 2017.
I knew what we were in for the moment I saw the first trailer for M. Night Shyamalan’s new film Split. Critics have long had it out for Shyamalan. Before the release of The Visit in 2015, I wrote about how the cultural consensus has consistently and willfully misunderstood him as an auteur. The Visit ended up opening to the sort of widespread acclaim that had evaded his work for over a decade. But when I saw Split’s trailer, I was sure it was about to come crashing down again, buckling under the weight of (perhaps not unfair) thinkpieces about the stigmatization of mental illness.
In Split, James McAvoy plays a man named Kevin with dissociative identity disorder. He has 23 distinct personalities vying for control of his body at all times. They argue and deceive and abuse each other, they have different agendas and intentions, genders and illnesses, anxieties and pains – they are 23 unique individuals, not just thin archetypes or caricatures. The case to be made against Split comes from its premise. Some of the personalities conspire to kidnap three teenage girls in order to sacrifice them to “The Beast,” a monstrous new personality which they believe will shortly emerge. It’s not that his mental illness is the cause of his evil – it’s the illness itself that’s dangerous.
You can see how easy it is, based solely on the elevator pitch, to make the argument that Split contributes to entrenched and harmful stigma about people with mental illness. It’s the crux of many negative reviews of the film, though some of those critiques read as though they could have been written before the film was even released. Split’s premise opens it up to criticism both fair and unfair, and I’d put a lot of takes I’ve read firmly in the latter category. It’s easy to tear into the premise and call it a day, especially if you have no personal connection to the material. But Split is not an easy film. It doesn’t lend itself to this shallow critical mode, and there’s a lot more to it than any trailer reveals.
I don’t know if there’s anyone with DID reading this, but if there is I’d like very much to hear your thoughts on the film. While that’s not an illness I have to deal with, I’ve struggled with suicidal depression and anxiety for most of my life, so generally speaking, mental illness is something I’m familiar with. I’m not going to say that anyone who feels that they’re personally affected by Split is wrong to feel that way. For my part, I found it to be as empathetic and moving an exploration of mental illness and trauma as I’ve ever seen in any film.
Early in the film, a personality named Barry visits their psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher. The film spends a surprising amount of time with Fletcher on her own. She seems to exclusively treat patients with DID, and through her the film diffuses some of the negative associations that it might encourage in other moments. In Split’s universe as in our own, DID is a controversial and poorly understood disorder. In one scene, Fletcher visits with a neighbor who casually mentions that she doesn’t believe DID is real at all, that the patients are simply lying. Fletcher, clearly uncomfortable, is put on the defensive. It’s a scene that rings painfully true for anyone who’s been accused of making up their mental issues as a way to get out of some obligation or requirement. Part of what I found so powerful about Split is this continued simple insistence that mental illness is real. This is probably the most pervasive and destructive lie about mental illness, and the film spends scene after scene rebuking it.
As Barry leaves the session, he stops and asks Fletcher, “Are you still fighting for us?” She tells him that yes, she is, and he breathes a sigh of relief. Few things are more meaningful to me than people who can affirm from an outside perspective that what I’m feeling is real and that they intend to help me through it. This is what I mean when I talk about Split being primarily an empathetic film. It understands and illustrates what it’s like to live with a mental illness in terms that films don’t typically touch upon. My eyes got a little misty at this line. It wouldn’t be the last time Split brought me to tears.
You may be wondering how far that empathy can possibly extend when the main character is a kidnapper and potential killer. Split’s greatest triumph is in how it garners sympathy for Kevin through his actions and not in spite of them. Kevin, it is eventually revealed, is a victim of an abusive mother. One of the prevailing explanations for DID is that it is an attempt by the brain to rationalize traumatic experiences as having happened to “someone else.” All of Kevin’s personalities, even the more outwardly sinister ones, act out of a desire to protect him.
We don’t get to hear from Kevin himself until very late in the film, and when we do, the first thing he does is beg for death. After seeing the violence committed in his name, he tells Casey, one of the kidnapped girls, to find his shotgun and kill him. Immediately, a wave of different personalities vye for control, each pleading with Casey not to hurt them. For me, this was the most moving scene in the entire film, the desperate attempt of a suicidal brain to preserve itself made tangible. This scene is Split in micro, theatrically humanizing the very real challenges presented by mental illness.
I briefly mentioned the character of Casey, and I’d be remiss not to talk about her in more detail as she’s as much the main character as Kevin. Over the course of several flashbacks, it’s slowly revealed that Casey was sexually abused by her uncle as a child, and that the abuse continued after her father’s death left her in her uncle’s care. The revelation casts new light on Casey’s cynicism in early scenes; her lack of enthusiasm for her fellow captives’ escape attempts makes more sense when you realize what’s waiting for her at home. This trauma turns out to be an asset, as she finds herself able to penetrate the defenses of the personalities keeping her captive and communicate with them. She has a connection with Kevin that both of them can feel but neither can identify. They’re bound together by an invisible thread of emotional agony.
Near the end of the film, as Casey attempts in vain to fight off the seemingly invincible Beast, the film made me cry a second time. The Beast stops attacking Casey when he notices that her torso is covered in scars. He finally relents upon seeing that she, like he, is “broken.” The Beast believes that broken people, people who have been through pain and darkness and torture and continued living, are more evolved than the rest of humanity. This personality’s skin is literally and figuratively impenetrable. It may come from the film’s most violent and merciless character, but the idea that one can turn their trauma and pain into strength and power is still weirdly inspiring. And because Split is always careful not to judge its cast, the message isn’t tainted by the character delivering it.
As Casey is rescued, we see that the dingy apartment where Kevin lived and held her hostage was below the Philadelphia Zoo. As she’s led past various predators in glass enclosures, the employee assures her that “they can’t hurt you.” Kevin, in an act of self-loathing that I found all too recognizable, chose to live in his own enclosure, far away from anyone he could potentially hurt. Realizing this is when I cried for the third time.
Split, like most of Shyamalan’s work, is a difficult film disguised as an easy one. The backlash against it has actually been far quieter than I anticipated, but I’ve still read several pieces arguing that it’s everything from misguided to offensive to dangerous. Like I said, I can’t argue that anyone’s reaction to this film is wrong, but I will argue that some reactions have been disingenuous. Split distinguishes itself from other films with similar themes by taking on the perspective of the mentally ill and the traumatized rather than taking a condescending exterior view. It’s one of the only films I can think of that speaks to my experience with mental illness in an honest way, even though it takes an ostensibly exploitative form. Split deserves better than to be tossed on the “problematic” pile by the Thinkpiece Industrial Complex.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures