Cheyenne Dorsagno, Editor-In-Chief
The trailer for Split quickly received a lot of attention as people have long been fascinated by Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a mental disorder in which one person has multiple personalities. However, many other people quickly became hesitant as well, worrying that this film would aestheticize mental conditions and spread misinformation.
Other directors, such has Quentin Tarantino, have similarly walked the line when taking on controversial topics, such as slavery in Django Unchained. Although, Tarantino ultimately empowered the subjects of these tragedies by telling a version of events in which they secure their own agency and heroically enact a just revenge.
I wanted to walk into Split with an open mind, especially since M. Night Shyamalan’s works range from unforgettable masterpieces like The Sixth Sense and unwatchable scraps of hot garbage like Lady in the Water. Needless to say, his films are very hit or miss, as it sometimes feels like he’s become a parodic version of himself who overcompensates in new movies due to the insecurity of standing in the shadows of his past works.
Split challenged me from the get go as I, and many other viewers, begin to question how realistic a scary movie is if the characters aren’t being clever or hardworking enough in escaping the antagonist. Main character Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) very easily gets abducted along with two other girls but her compliance with her kidnapper becomes an important part of her character development. It’s important to remember that everyone responds differently to danger and, yes, people really do trip when they are running wildly in the woods, even if their life depends on it.
Being a woman unfortunately involves awareness of these types of dangers, so I was not surprised about a man kidnapping three women. The tension builds as the film preys on my expectations but there is quickly some relief when one of Kevin Wendell Crumb’s (James McAvoy) personalities assures the girls that the predatory personality, Dennis, has been prohibited from touching them. Still, his obvious desires remain disturbing.
This is only worsened by Casey’s reoccurring flashbacks to the day she went hunting with her family and was eventually molested by her uncle. While the sexual assault is not explicitly shown, it is still blatantly the subject at hand. This could alienate a lot of viewers, who understandably wouldn’t find sexual assault an interesting or sufficient plot point. It’s not clear whether or not cinematically addressing the topic of rape will normalize and stigmatize it, but it’s sufficed to say that it is not entertaining, although it’s often reduced to a tool to horrify viewers with a false perception of the torment molestation entails.
As the story goes on the two other captives put forth a good effort to escape while Casey attempts to stay alive by playing by the rules. I’m not a psychiatrist, but with some research, Shyamalan’s portrayal of DID is somewhat true to life. We don’t see much of Kevin’s personality, but we do see a lot of his host personality, or his most present and powerful personality, although this is not the personality he was born with. At first, the host was thought to be Barry, a charming fashion designer that seeks treatment from Dr. Fletcher. As it turns out, Dennis has become the host personality but often pretends to be Barry in order to subdue the doctor’s worries. Meanwhile, Dr. Fletcher is presenting her research to the scientific community, which asserts that people with mental disorders are actually stronger and more capable that those deemed “normal.” This isn’t an entirely original idea, but it’s definitely an intriguing perspective.
Dennis more than agrees with Dr. Fletcher, thinking that traumatized people are actually “pure” and superhuman. Dennis continually alludes to the captives’ sacred purpose and to a twenty-fourth personality, “The Beast,” which is described as terrifying and animalistic. This scary movie is frequently relieved with bits of humor, brilliantly executed by McAvoy. And once “The Beast” comes out, it’s clear that the supernatural qualities described weren’t purely theoretical. Suddenly, Kevin’s body is impenetrable and “The Beast’s” craving for human flesh will be satisfied by Casey and her two friends. At this point, the film has played with horror, comedy, and now fantasy.
As Casey attempts to flee, she finds a note left behind by Dr. Fletcher, who had just been killed by “The Beast.” It tells her “Say Kevin Wendell Crumb.” By saying Kevin’s full name, his identity will come forth and be in control of his body again. This raises the question, why didn’t Dr. Fletcher just do that herself and spare her own life rather than taking the time to write this note out, hoping that someone would stumble upon it? Casey follows the doctor’s advice, only talking to Kevin long enough to get his permission to kill him. Kevin also tells her where he keeps his shotgun, echoing the conflict Casey had earlier in the film when she had a moment where she could have killed her molester but she hesitated and lost control of the gun.
Soon enough, Casey realizes that she cannot outrun “The Beast” and, ironically, she secures her freedom by locking herself in a cage and revealing her scars (presumably self-inflicted or given by her molester). “The Beast” realizes that she, too, has suffered, which he believes makes her worthy of living. Once Casey leaves the premises, she discovers that Kevin has been living at the zoo where he worked. The constant allusions to Kevin’s animalistic nature really muddles how the film is trying to portray survivors of abuse and mental disorder. True, not all of Kevin’s personalities are bad and our protagonist, Casey, likely has Stockholm Syndrome, maybe depression, and who knows what else.
But, ultimately, the film is not resolved because the audience learns that Casey’s father died some years ago and that she was forced to move in with the uncle who molested her (and who likely continued to do so). The viewers are led to believe that this near-death experience has taught Casey to fight for herself but we are never told whether or not she reports her uncle’s crimes. For a film that takes a controversial stance on the possible benefits of being abused, it does not take a strong enough position on the evils of abusers. The movie makes Casey responsible for the situation that she is in, which could be construed as some level of victim blaming, but it does not at least show her rising to the challenge.
Then, in a truly unexpected twist, the film ends with two people watching the story being reported on the news. They reference a similar incident that happened a while back with a man in a wheelchair. It turns out, this movie is in the same universe as Shyamalan’s previous film Unbreakable, a superhero movie. Perhaps more accurately, it’s a sequel. So, wait, that means that “The Beast” and Unbreakable’s Mr. Glass (the aforementioned man in the wheelchair) are super-villains? And our superhero is David Dunn, the protagonist of Unbreakable who is specifically characterized as never having experienced a sickness in his life? While Shyamalan seems to have good intentions, he bit off more than he could chew. The film has plot holes, its multiple narratives seem to contradict one another, and it is generally all over the place. However, the film was definitely interesting, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and unusual. For that, I’m glad I watched it.