Before its release, Split had become a lightning rod for controversy for its depiction of dissociative identity disorder. A boycott arose because of the film’s transphobia and its pernicious approach to mental illness.
After seeing Split, I can tell you that those boycotting it are absolutely right.
The controversy stems from James McAvoy’s role as Kevin, the villain and de facto main character, who lives with dissociative identity disorder. Shyamalan eventually depicts Kevin as horrifying, but for the first two-thirds of the film, Shyamalan depicts Kevin as something worse: funny. The film leans hard on the comic relief at Kevin’s expense. Until the final climax, every scene with McAvoy uses the beats and interplay of a comedy film. The pacing and McAvoy’s vocal mannerisms invite us to laugh at his character. When he plays Hedwig, a child with speech irregularities and a learning disability, the film tells us to laugh at his cadence. When he plays Barry, an effeminate fashion designer, the film tells us to laugh at his gender fluidity. When he plays Patricia, a middle-aged woman, the film tells us to laugh at the cross-dressing adult male. (In context, the result feels even more transphobic than you imagine.)
Shyamalan, ever the consummate horror director, makes McAvoy suitably scary for the final climax. At the risk of spoiling the film, the Kevin of the final climax appears superhumanly strong, insensate, and simple of mind, a direct invocation of a false, hurtful stereotype of the intellectually disabled.1 Shyamalan used McAvoy as a laughable Dr. Jekyll and a terrifying Mr. Hyde. Yes, like most Shyamalan films, this one ends on a twist. No, that twist doesn’t mitigate this film’s irresponsible characterizations.
Shyamalan almost seems to have good intentions, depicting the long-term damage of physical and sexual abuse of children. The film starts with Kevin’s most fastidious personality Dennis kidnapping three girls: two BFFs (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy), an outcast with difficult school and home lives. While Casey plots their escape, she struggles with flashbacks to her childhood, in which we learn that she survived physical and sexual abuse. Kevin has his own struggles, as his 23 personalities have factionalized and started a turf war in his mind that manifests in the real world. This alarms Kevin’s psychotherapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who views Kevin as a model for her pet theory that the mentally ill have superpowers. (No, really. She actually believes that, and this film’s scientific community still respects her.)
Split invites comparisons to the Netflix series The OA. Both have plots that center on women kidnapped by obsessive, unpredictable men as experiments. Both kidnapping dramas fall into pitfalls typical of the premise: an uneven, frustrating pace; spurts of false hope that fail to mask the monotony; a surfeit of redundant characterization of the jailer; the imprisonment narrative lasting long past its sell-by date. Both approach the supernatural with a tantalizing ambiguity. In the most prominent parallel, both have a metafictional effect where the viewer starts to feel gaslit. Shyamalan uses his existing reputation as “the twist-ending guy” to make us wonder if we can trust what we see or what we believe the characters want. But this comes at the expense of the characterization, of which the film has little for anyone but Kevin.
To his credit, from a storytelling standpoint, Shyamalan has continued his upward trajectory from The Visit. He balances exposition with such deftness that the narrative’s foundation of pseudoscience almost doesn’t come off as risible. Taylor-Joy has the perfect appearance for her role: expressive but withdrawn; melancholy but motivated. The camera angles feel dynamic and make the film’s quotidian settings stand out. The soundtrack never fails to keep the viewer guessing as to the mysteries of the setting. Although the actual horror itself comes off as ableist and transphobic, Shyamalan has a good eye for escalating tension. In this film, he mostly eschewed jump scares in favor of the psychological slow-burn, a long overdue choice. The film reminds me of Killer7—which is problematic in its own right2—but has more effective horror and a more empathetic portrayal of its DID character.
So I can see Shyamalan getting his groove back. But in a country where those who have mental illness issues or disorders will have to spend the foreseeable future fighting to hang onto what exiguous rights we have, this film should not exist. It will do for the mentally ill what Ace Ventura: Pet Detective did for trans individuals. It will further our culture in the direction of viewing them as either worthy of laughter or horror… but not equality.
I regret watching Split. I regret spending money to watch Split. As a film critic who has personally experienced mental illness and abuse, I implore you not to make the same mistake I did. Read the Wikipedia article if you crave spoilers, then spend the admission price on cheap beer and drink yourself into a coma instead. Your brain cells will feel like they dodged a bullet.
1 Public Service Announcement: although it should be obvious, the R-word is extremely offensive to the intellectually disabled and the mentally ill. I adjure anyone reading this to quit using it for any reason, even in its original context.
2 And really hard.Liked This? Share It!