SPLIT (2017) Just Might Leave You That Way

It’s not difficult to avoid ‘spoilers’ for Split (2017). The trailers for M. Night Shyamalan’s new horror-thriller movie reveal almost (but not quite) everything of importance to the narrative. Even without the previews, the film’s tagline makes clear that its ‘monster,’ Kevin, is a person with dissociative identity disorder (DID). As played by James McAvoy, this character is both the best and the worst thing about Split, which was both written and directed by Shyamalan.

As advertised, Kevin does indeed have twenty-three distinct personalities (or “alters”). At least, his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), believes he does. The rest of the fictional mental health community is not convinced that the condition exists. Even among DID specialists, Dr. Fletcher is a fringe figure. She believes that DID makes those who have it ‘more than’ rather than ‘less than’ in comparison to so-called ‘normal’ people. She even asserts that DID might provide insight into the nature of supernatural phenomena.

The real dilemma is not professional skepticism. It’s Kevin. Unbeknownst to Dr. Fletcher, the leadership role among Kevin’s alters has changed. Two of them (Dennis and Patricia), who believe in the existence of “The Beast,” have taken control of Kevin’s mind with the help of a third, Hedwig, who is a young boy. Is The Beast the twenty-fourth alter, a collective fantasy of the other twenty-three, or a separate entity?

In any event, Dennis has kidnapped three young women — Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s easy to recognize early on as the film’s ‘Final Girl,’ Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) — to use in a ritual connected with the coming revelation of The Beast. Their attempts to escape from the dungeon-like, underground facility in which Dennis has imprisoned them constitute the bulk of the film’s action.

McAvoy’s portrayal of Kevin’s multiple personalities (eight of whom appear on-screen) is the aspect of the film that held my attention. On the positive side, McAvoy is convincing in both his characterizations of Kevin’s alters and in his transitions between them. On the negative side, his complex character in effect ‘monsterizes’ both people diagnosed with mental disorders (at least those with DID) and the groups represented by the personalities that make up the “we” that is Kevin.

Just how offensive Kevin’s monstrosity becomes depends on one’s point of view. First, the issue of the demonization of mental illness is complicated by Dr. Fletcher’s efforts (within the diegesis) to rehabilitate the professional and public view of people with DID. Still, the changes in her relationship with Kevin and his alters (particularly Dennis) call her advocacy efforts into question. Second, Kevin’s personalities include a gay man (a stereotypical fey fashion designer), a woman (which leads to a visual presentation of Kevin as a cross-dressing man — shades of 1991’s Silence of the Lambs), and a child, Hedwig. While the apparently ‘straight’ Dennis drives Kevin’s growing monstrousness, he himself has somewhat perverse sexual interests, as Marcia discovers in an early scene.

The question is: are women, queer people, and children demonized, along with Kevin’s mental condition, through McAvoy’s character? I found myself starting to regret Shyamalan’s decision to use a psychological trope as the basis of a story (again), even as I realized that this choice creates a complex and often fascinating cinematic experience (again). Still, given the film’s climax and denouement (which I won’t spoil here), it’s not clear who is the real monster in the world of this movie. Since Shyamalan’s ending leaves the possibility of a sequel wide open, perhaps he intends to leave the audience in a state of ambivalence to stimulate interest in his next film?

Even so, the film’s basic conflict involves the victimization of three young women by a man. This situation is not uncommon in horror films, particularly in the slasher subgenre. This one involves some ‘rapey’ titillation of the male gaze. There’s also lots of male-on-female abuse and violence. Finally, a clever yet unsettling twist on the classic Final Girl – monster confrontation ends the movie. This does ‘flip the script’ on the conventional relationship between the binaries of pure/impure and whole/wounded. Still, where Split lands on the ideological map, in the end, is open to question.

But is it worth a watch? Yes. Split is currently in its first week of a wide theatrical release. DVDs Release Dates estimates that it will be out on DVD and Blu-ray in April. Plans for a future VOD release are unknown at present. Decide for yourself how you want to view it. Then see it — but be prepared to be “split” in your thoughts about what you experience.