Warning: this film does include references to child abuse and heavily implies sexual assault.
I’m a horror obsessive. The genre has always been a part of my life and always will be part of my life.
But there are problems with the genre. There are elements that are shorthand for compelling backstory or character development that are troubling to say the least. They’re used enough to be tropes and, with very few exceptions, they’re not necessary for a compelling story.
[Editorial Note: I went down the rabbit hole on this train of thought. It became increasingly distracting to the overall review of this film. Analyzing Split from that perspective does not work in a review format since I would have to prove the existence of a problem and show off the few films that don’t use it in an emotionally manipulative or even downright abusive way. Split is not an exception. Anyone who might be sensitive to the content warning above should do their homework on what is shown in the flashbacks before watching.]
M. Night Shyamalan’s Split toys around with some of these tropes to varying degrees of success. One is, until the final confrontation sequence, handled so well that I was fully prepared to write a very different review. Unfortunately, in true Shyamalan fashion, the ending you hope isn’t going to happen is doubled down on in spectacularly offensive fashion.
People joke about Shyamalan and his obsession with twists over everything else. There’s merit to the criticism, but it does ignore a lot of what he does well as a writer and director. The pacing of his films is very good and he gets really compelling performances out of his actors. Where he can get a bit lazy is allowing the tropes of horror and science fiction to define key points of his narrative so he doesn’t have to.
Split is a horror film about three teenagers abducted by a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. The film, mercifully, uses the actual title of the condition with only the film’s title itself hinting at the better known but inaccurate (and rather insensitive) nomenclature.
Essentially, the villain of the film is represented by 23 separate personalities. He is being treated by a therapist specializing in DID who is doing everything she can to protect patients who have the condition from being the focus of ridicule and decades of misinformation. Unfortunately, this one patient has victimized people in the past and has relapsed on his treatment plan. The three young women are in danger and the personalities currently in control have no interest in sharing their plans with anyone else.
It’s pretty amazing that Shyamalan took the time to actually treat this condition with respect and accuracy. Cinema has quite a few films that show DID as something sensational, scandalous, and terrifying at the expense of showing any compassion for people who do have the condition. My mind jumps to two films when thinking about this: Sisters and Identity. Not to spoil exactly what happens, but they are typical of the common use of this in original narratives: a twist ending. Someone we thought was really isn’t and that’s meant to be shocking. Sure, some films (the original Sybil being the best example) actually do try to handle this with some sensitivity, but even the most sincere find some way of exploiting a condition defined by childhood trauma for shock value.
What surprised me is how well Shyamalan handled DID. There is such a level of nuance and depth for much of the running time. The villain is not scary because he has a condition; the villain is scary because none of the 23 identities with any ability to take control in these circumstances has any intention of freeing the victims. The victims are trapped, and it doesn’t matter if they’re visited by a child, the man who captured them, or an extremely religious woman: they’re not getting out without a fight.
I don’t want to get into the resolution of the film (the much talked about twist ending and what leads to it). I want to go into how the final confrontation scene undoes any good will the film built up with attempting to explore mental illness, levels of victimization, and how actions can be far more terrifying than motivations. It’s literally M. Night Shyamalan choosing to include a scene just for the sake of shock value. It is so tonally out of line with a film that I just can’t understand the decision to include it at all. Then I remember that this is the man responsible for an entire film that can be defined by asking why? —Lady in the Water.
The resolution of Split is a whole other bag of horrible representation for victims and people with mental health conditions. The language of the screenplay chooses to glorify what can be absolutely devastating things to live with as something desirable or even ideal. One of the personalities essentially says the only truly worthwhile people in the world are the ones who have struggled with mental health problems or abuse.
I almost feel silly pointing out that it’s not true. It’s the forced romanticizing of mental illness, the myth of the suffering creative, that has done and will continue to do more harm than it’s ever been worth. It’s the outdated belief that mental illness or past trauma are this amazing fountain of inspiration for people.
The corollary is that there are people in the world who will actively tell creative people not to go to therapy or seek medical treatment for their mental health issues because it will change them. I’ve literally had editors tell me I’ll fail as a writer if I go on medication because I won’t think the same way anymore. It wasn’t true, but it sure did fill me with enough doubt to pushback my decision to seek help for a variety of issues for seven years. The fear of changing was pressured into my mind as somehow worse than any relief I would get from serious mental health problems.
Simply put, this whole attitude is disgusting. It is such a horrible and offensive turn in the narrative of Split. It only exists to set up for another film. Any good is difficult to praise when downright dangerous attitudes and tropes are used to manipulate an audience into caring more about a longer narrative. Tell a story well without offensive nonsense (like so much of Split managed to do) and you’ll have an audience for a sequel.
It really is a shame that Shyamalan went that route with the screenplay. The good in the film is great. James McAvoy (the villain), Betty Buckley (the therapist), and Anya Taylor-Joy (the lead) are phenomenal in this film. Part of what works so well is the chemistry between them and their commitment to what very well may have read as silly on page. McAvoy, in particular, finds such a clear distinction between his many personalities that you can tell who his captives will be dealing with on body language alone.
The production design is wonderful. There are literally just enough clues in plain sight but seemingly unimportant upon introduction that would not work if we didn’t believe they physical space could exist. It’s very 10 Cloverfield Lane in its use of every available inch of space for something that will be significant to the plot eventually.
Can you find enjoyment in Split? Absolutely. I know plenty of people who raved about this film. Can someone with a more personal connection to some of the poorly written and planned moments in the film enjoy it? Possibly. The tropes are used egregiously, with no warning and no genuine purpose other than shock, but that doesn’t mean that people other than me can’t get past them.