(WARNING: Spoilers for Split ahead)
When M. Night Shyamalan makes a movie, the last thing on his mind is the phrase, "Follow the rules." After all, #thrillers rely on twists and turns to keep the audience engaged. If you throw out the safety rails, the surprises hit like triple espressos downed in one gulp. Even though we all love surprises (and coffee), Shyamalan's newest film, Split, might just prove that having some guidelines is the only way to keep controversial stories intact.
Split takes on heavy subjects like mental illness and child abuse. It's come under fire recently for a poor portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder, which has good chance of cutting down its box office numbers. However, the problem with Split goes beyond misrepresenting a stigmatized group of people. When it throws away the rules and lets these dark themes leak out in the wrong places, it throws away its own story.
Breaking Down The Identities Of 'Split'
Split stars James McAvoy as a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (otherwise known as Multiple Personality Disorder). When he abducts three teenage girls, the tension between his personalities skyrockets, leaving both him and his psychologist baffled. There are 23 individual minds living inside Kevin's body, but a twenty-fourth threatens to emerge. Which one will take the spotlight?
Split operates as two distinct movies (not 23, thankfully). One is a genuinely interesting, slow-burn tale that raises some unique questions about the mind. The second is a far-fetched thrill ride with little logic and no emotional satisfaction. Two stories fighting for the spotlight is the first part of the problem, but it only leads the way for bigger issues.
Fact Or Fiction?
The main theme of Split (which is the possibly most problematic) revolves around Kevin's disorder. In the beginning of the movie, his OCD personality, Dennis, is responsible for the abductions. His other personalities have different motives. They fight with each other, reason with each other, and act as completely different human beings. According to the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) — which is what modern psychologists use to diagnose people like Kevin — the first half of the movie stays within the criteria of DID, even fleshing out the portrayal with smaller details such as moments of amnesia. It's when Split breaks the rules of reality, however, that things get muddled.
Split is fascinated with one specific aspect of the disorder. Sometimes, the body chemistry of those suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder changes depending on their personality. Real-life cases involve allergies, blood flow, and unique motor functions. They're minor changes. Split is a Shyamalan movie, though, and so it bumps everything up eight notches. The story pictures Kevin, a legitimately sick man, as the next step in evolution.
"The Beast . . . He's done awful things to people and he'll do awful things to you."
Kevin's twenty-fourth personality brings on some majorly unbelievable changes in body chemistry. Superhuman changes, in fact. Split is a thriller, and thrillers break rules, but the story takes such a sharp turn away from the emotional realism of the first half that the ending comes across as insignificant and offensive. The imagined twist on Dissociative Personality Disorder is the reason Split operates like two different movies. It's awkward to watch, but the longer it goes on, it stops being a problem of reaching too far and misrepresenting a serious sickness to becoming a problem of undermining everything else in the story.
Mental Disorders + Abuse = Rocky Ground
After the disjointed plot, there's one more muddy aspect that drags down the whole story. Most of the movie focuses on Kevin, and with #JamesMcAvoy's dynamic performance, there's no question as to why. However, Kevin isn't the only character. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey, a social outcast who finds herself in Kevin's basement with two other unfortunate girls. She relates to her captor in a way many can't: They both have a history of abuse.
With Casey and Kevin's traumatic experiences in the picture, Split takes on a new kind of emotional weight. Kevin's twenty-fourth personality is obsessed with people who have never really suffered, and because Casey shares the same scars, Kevin spares her. However, Casey's abuse is ongoing. Split never resolves her character arc nor closes some of the wounds these kinds of themes open. When all the fragmented pieces come together, Split still feels like a movie that lost interest in one of its most raw aspects.
This Is How Split Destroys Its Own Story
When you ask questions, you have to answer them. At the very least, you have to give a reason for not answering them. Split is a movie that tore itself apart by exploring the kind of dark themes that create real, relatable emotions in the audience. Kevin's disorder is rare, but seeing it portrayed in a situation that shows its complexities from more than one side is important and genuine. Seeing two people connected by the horrific scars of abuse is more compelling than any plot twist, but when all of these things are undermined by the "thriller" side of the story wrapping everything up in campy, unbelievable way, we feel like we've been cheated.
When you give us something to care about, it's not always the best idea to take it away. It's not a rule. Movies don't have rules, after all, and neither do directors or writers or actors. However, when you've got a full-spectrum set of markers, it doesn't hurt to color inside the lines once in a while.
Have you seen Split, and were you put off by the self-destructive themes in the movie?