In recent years, something of a trend has emerged, where we are seeing producers aiming to grab our attention with depictions of the mentally ill. Productions such as Dexter and Hannibal have drawn us in to bear witness to the disturbing extremes of the human mind. The latest mental disorder to be given the Hollywood treatment is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), previously known as Split (or Multiple) Personality Disorder. Split sees M. Night Shyamalan return to directing, and it’s more of the same from the director who brought us The Happening and The Visit. Suspense and terror are the name of the game in Split, as we see James McAvoy portray Kevin, who suffers from an extreme case of DID, playing host to 24 distinct personalities.
McAvoy as 9 year-old Hedwig, one of the 24 personalities
DID has made appearances in numerous films, examples include The Incredible Hulk to Psycho and Dressed to Kill. The condition is seemingly appealing to filmmakers, potentially due to the conditions’ ability to lend itself to extreme behaviours, conflict, torment, secrets, and mysteries – all traits that are desired in films of this genre. It is somewhat unfortunate that these tend to be horror movies and psychological thrillers, which paints the patients as violent, which doesn’t help the audience to understand the disorder, instead providing a cartoonish depiction of it. In cinema, having a mental health condition makes you a psychopath, just as having autism makes you a genius (as seen in the film x + y or The Rain Man).
McAvoy’s performance is surprising and superb, moving fluidly between a number of different characters; all being convincing, likeable, and horrifying, in their own, unique way. McAvoy’s range is one of the highlights of the film, and you can tell that he is enjoying getting to show off so many facets of his talent.
Despite its radical subject matter, Split struggles to break away from generic horror components, in terms of its plot. The movie’s antihero, portrayed by McAvoy, plans to sacrifice three scantily-clad teenage girls to realise a supernatural ritual is something that could be taken straight out of an 80s B-movie. But that is not to take anything away from McAvoy’s consummate performance, or Shyamalan’s masterful orchestration of suspense. As a thriller, the movie has it all, and there will be a number of moments where you just will not be able to look away, gripped by McAvoy’s chilling performance. That is precisely the way you need to look at this film, then – as a spectacle and nothing more, nothing serious. Just it does little in the way of reinventing the horror/thriller genre, it merely uses DID as a way of reinventing on an age-old staple – a linear build up to a climactic finale, with a few plot twists to keep us honest.
As it is such a sensitive subject, there is a right way, as well as a wrong way, of handling such a delicate issue and Shyamalan doesn’t quite hit the mark here.
What scares us most about watching the mind of a person unfold is that it reminds us just how delicate our own minds are. Ending the movie with McAvoy’s transformation into the superhuman ‘Horde’ is where Shyamalan gets it wrong. The success of films such as The Silence of the Lambs or American Psycho came from the way in which we came to relate to the film’s villain, but Split’s finale kills any sense of realism that made the earlier stages of the film so creepy and unsettling.
Trivialising mental illness has seemed to work for Shyamalan, however, as the movie grossed over $275 million dollars from a humble budget of $9 million. Sometimes putting an old picture into a new frame works and, luckily for Shyamalan, Split did just that.
The film is now out on DVD, but in the mean time here’s the trailer: