Warning: Spoilers for Split within
Someone asked me about Split after I had written a post on mental health tropes in horror. I hadn’t heard of the movie up until that point (apparently I was really out of the loop), so I decided to go see it this past weekend.
We’ll get to the harmful stereotypes about mental illness later. As much as we can, let’s focus on the film separate from mental health tropes (I say tropes because this was not based at all on mental illness and trauma that real people struggle with). I did not like the film. I know a lot of people did, but, like I am with a lot of films, I wasn’t that big of a fan. I thought the suspense was not done well, and it rewarded characters for making dumb decisions. The film also indulged in torture porn which wasn’t even done well stylistically (not an excuse for torture porn, but you have to admit that at least filmmakers like Tarantino have a style). Also, apparently you have to have seen Unbreakable to “get” the ending. I haven’t seen Unbreakable, so I ended up thinking everyone was dead the whole time. It’s meant to be Hitchcock with a twist, but it ends up being Hitchcock done poorly. Overall, I found it to be bland and boring.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the heart of the film.
I really think that M. Night Shyamalan tried to make the film sympathetic towards people struggling with mental illness. But instead, the film ended up romanticizing illness. Yes, Kevin/The Beast had supernatural powers, but we all know that it’s really based on something in reality. What’s worse, it’s based on a group of people. Horror plays on our cultural fears, and the psycho killer trope plays on our fears of mentally ill people. Casey was clearly meant to break this trope, but instead it romanticized her trauma.
Casey and Kevin are clearly meant to be two sides of the same coin. They have both faced childhood trauma and abuse, and they are both coping with in some way. Casey acts out, and Kevin’s personalities help him in a variety of situations. Kevin also clearly leans on his therapist (who also fights for people with DID, a controversial disorder both in the movie and in real life). When The Beast sees this similarities, he lets Casey go despite killing the other two girls.
Kevin’s battle with himself and his personalities in contrast to Casey’s negative coping skills could have made an interesting movie. The plot definitely had potential. Even turning his illness into a superpower could have had potential, but it wasn’t authentic and it didn’t seem like it was trying to be. The movie had every character yelling at the audience that Kevin and most of his personalities were not the villain, but then the film simply made him a villain. Perhaps this was the idea, but if so, then it’s lazy writing. It was also executed cheaply. The Beast is the embodiment of evil, but why does Kevin house such an evil thing? He’s done nothing wrong, and a battle within himself is discussed in passing, but it never really comes up. There was nothing compelling about Kevin. McAvoy is a great actor, but actors can only do so much with a superficial script.
Split just didn’t have much going for it. This isn’t the first time Shyamalan has had an interesting idea and didn’t execute it well. Superpowers as a metaphor for illness is absolutely something that works. However, the film needs to authentic and the ideas of the film need to come through clearly.
Basically, the whole time I was watching the movie, I was thinking about the trailer they played before the film for Get Out.