Release date: 20th January 2017/Watch the trailer here
Split, a film which many are considering to be something of a return to form for master of the plot twist, M. Night Shyamalan, raises a very important question. Is it really still acceptable to use mental illness as the basis for a horror movie? It’s far from the first time that this has happened: just look at Psycho. The key difference being, however, that Psycho was made almost sixty years ago, and our understanding of mental illnesses has come a very long way since then.
The mental illness in question in Split is dissociative identity disorder (DID), a complex psychological disorder from which James McAvoy’s character Kevin suffers. It’s also a controversial condition – many mental health professionals actually debate its existence (or at least whether it exists to the sensationalised state so often shown in films). In Split, Kevin has twenty-three distinct personalities coexisting within his brain. Some are perfectly harmless, such as a nine-year-old Kanye West fan named Hedwig and Barry, a fashion designer. Others are more malevolent; and it is one of these more sinister personalities, Dennis, who kidnaps three teenage girls and holds them prisoner in his basement.
The three girls – Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) – must deal with Kevin’s ever-changing personalities, never knowing whether they’ll be talking to harmless child Hedwig or perhaps Patricia, the British woman who is one of the less desirable inhabitants of Kevin’s mind. They know very little about why they have been kidnapped – they are never really physically threatened, although Shyamalan finds numerous reasons for them to end up in various states of undress – only being told that they are ‘sacred food’ for an entity that Kevin refers to as The Beast.
McAvoy truly is the only element of Split that manages to hold the entire thing together. It’s an example of perfect casting; a less charismatic actor surely would have struggled with the fine line that McAvoy treads between dark humour and a constant sense of menace. He juggles each personality with ease (and while we never meet all twenty-three, we are introduced to at least six or seven), convincing enough that it’s almost easy to forget that it’s the same actor throughout. Hedwig in particular is a highlight, evoking the most laughs but also the most chills, every increasingly ominous line sounding all the more creepy when spoken in the lisping, innocent voice of a child, while coming from the body of a grown man.
As for the rest of Split, whether or not it’s a true return to form for Shyamalan is debatable. It could never have reached the impossible lows of The Happening, but it’s still very far from the highs of The Sixth Sense (as much as it would like to be). Unfortunately, there’s no ‘he was dead the whole time!’ reveal here; each twist and turn can be seen from a mile away and they are revealed so heavy-handedly as to be eye-roll inducing (aside from one very last surprise, which is laugh-out-loud unbelievable).
McAvoy elevates Split into a far better film than it would have been without him, but his scene-stealing character(s) leave little left of the limelight for anyone else. Taylor-Joy (who has already proved herself as a brilliant young talent in The Witch and Morgan) plays the only abductee of any real interest, while psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) has hardly any more purpose than to explain DID to the audience. Admittedly, the disorder is covered in a lot of detail throughout the film, and it’s evident that it’s something that interests Shyamalan – so it’s a shame that, in making Split, he has only succeeded in further stigmatising a mental illness that was already misunderstood.