M. Night Shyamalan tries too hard. For years, I have mused over why he has struggled to make a film on par with The Sixth Sense. After watching Split, I think that the problem is that he takes an interesting idea and frets so much over whether or not the audience will get it that he turns up the volume on his metaphors until they are painfully obvious. He does not trust us and he tries too hard. In Split, the result is a somewhat inappropriate metaphor about trauma and mental illness. In order to explain, I am going to have to spoil the ending in my review.
In Split, Marcia (Jessica Sula), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy; played as a 5-year-old by Izzie Coffey) are kidnapped by a man with 23 distinct identities (James McAvoy). The obsessive-compulsive, perhaps pedophilic Dennis takes the girls, but they are soon introduced to matronly Patricia and young Hedwig. Meanwhile, the sensitive fashion designer identity, Barry, continues to show up to “emergency” meetings with his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) only to tell her that everything is fine. The disconnect between what Barry says and the urgent emails she receives asking for appointments raises Dr. Fletcher’s suspicions. She starts to wonder if she is really meeting with Barry at all, or if control has been taken by Dennis and Patricia, identities who are mocked by the others for their belief in The Beast. The Beast is coming, they assert, to devour those who have not suffered.
The premise is intriguing, if heavy-handed, but then things spiral out of control. It turns out that The Beast really is coming. Dr. Fletcher’s research on Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) has led her to believe that the trauma that causes people to have DID may enable them to use more of their brains. She points to the ability of some with DID to change their body chemistry, for example when only one identity has diabetes or depression. Split takes this tidbit to its grossest extreme. A 24th identity has emerged, bigger, stronger, and more violent than any of the others—The Beast. By the way, Barry/Kevin/Patricia/etc have been living under the zoo and The Beast is an amalgamation of different predators, plus he can scale walls. Ugh.
Setting aside the mildly thrilling parts and the strong acting by James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy, the implication of the movie is that the mentally ill can make themselves literally monstrous. One could dismiss it as fantasy; we do find out in the end that the whole thing is just a setup for Shyamalan’s version of the Marvel Universe, but Split takes an already controversial diagnosis, DID, and makes it villainous in a way that I hope was not intended. The hamfisted elements about trauma and purity were bad enough, but the added discomfort over how DID is portrayed made me want to walk out of the theater.
I think Shyamalan was trying to do something interesting with the final girl (a convention in horror movies, particularly slasher movies, in which the girl who survives to confront the killer usually represents cultural norms around good femininity and behavior.). In Split, as the final girl, Casey is able to survive because of the abuse and trauma that she endured. In the language of the film, this abuse makes her “pure.” In a way, the dynamic is a little subversive, and I appreciate the portrayal of Casey as a survivor and a rational, deep thinker. Still, the language around purity and trauma is so troubling and overwrought, it just did not work.
For quality filmmaking, strong acting, and terrible, terrible writing, I rate Split 2/5 stars.
If the premise of Split interested you, I recommend the short-lived series The United States of Tara starring Toni Collette and Brie Larson. It is funny and sometimes thrilling and features a better portrayal of DID and amazing acting by Toni Collette as she embodies even more distinct personalities than Split imagines.
Split was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan it runs 1 hour and 57 minutes and is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language.
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