Movie Review: Split
Ah, M. Night Shayamalan. I know a lot of people have mixed feelings towards the director whose name is synonymous with “twist ending that makes you slap your forehead in annoyance that you didn’t get it in the first place and/or because it’s totally shit”, but I really don’t- I really like him. Well, I’m not defending The Last Airbender or The Happening, but I have a serious soft spot for even some of his more maligned movies like Lady in the Water and The Village. Hell, I even liked his last movie, The Visit, a very competent found-footage horror that was actually-whisper it- scary. Not to mention, of course, the handful of bonafide brilliant movies he has under his belt- The Sixth Sense (obviously), Unbreakable, and Signs. He’s a director I’m always interested in, because he seems to operate slightly outside the Hollywood standard, for better or for worse.
So, yeah, I’ve been excited about Split ever since I caught the first trailer a few months ago- starring the eternally brilliant James McAvoy as a man with a series of personalities who kidnaps some teenage girls to fulfill some sort of twisted prophecy, it looked like exactly the kind of pulpy, B-movie fun that I live for.
And I wasn’t dissapointed on that front. Split is not high art, but it’s pretty bloody entertaining if you take it for what it is; a handsomely-directed psychological thriller that’s more fun than it has any right to be- and attempts to approach the sensitive subject of child abuse with plenty of nuance and varying degrees of success. Whatever you want to say about his stories (and you can say a lot), Shayamalan knows how to put together a film from a visual standpoint, and Split is one of his more memorably-shot pieces and whenever the story gets a little thin, he props it up with some confident direction earned from years learning the craft.
Of course, what makes this film is unarguably the bravura performance from McAvoy as the villain(s) of the piece. Where he once seemed to be dawdling down the heartthrob route, the Scottish actor thankfully took a swerve into a series of weird, meaty roles that seem to suit him far better than the leading man shtick, and this is just another in a long line of mesmerising performances from him. There are a couple of just stunning displays of his talent in Split, most notably the scenes where he switches between personalities with nothing more than these tiny micro-expressions. It’s a shame the Academy Awards don’t give a shit about horror, because this, without a doubt, is one of the best performances I’ve seen all year. Anya Taylor-Joy, of The Witch fame, is overshadowed but also excellent as the traumatised lead of the kidnapped victims, and the script draws some chilling moments from her performance as the extent of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncle is made clear.
But there was something bothering me throughout the entire movie, and that was it’s treatment of mental health- specifically, Disassociative Identity Disorder, which McAvoy’s character is stated to suffer from several times over the course of the movie.
Before I saw the film, I noted that a number of people had boycotted it for the way it treats DID, and there are a few articles written by people who suffer from the disorder criticising the film for how it represented that. And I’m on their side-because the film’s villain would not commit the terrible acts he does over the course of the film if it were not for his disorder (in fact, when he briefly returns to his “normal” self, he asks Taylor-Joy’s character to kill him to keep him from doing anything else). This is not, as with some other mental health problems, one poor depiction amongst a sea of more favourable or neutral ones- in fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone even reference the disorder on-screen outside of Split. If the film had pitched itself as nothing more than a campy, pulpy B-movie, this might have been less egregious, but it involves child abuse and recovery as a theme, so Shayamalan clearly wasn’t shying away from more serious issues. I don’t think it’s unfair for people suffering from DID to want him to treat their disorder with a little more sensitivity, too.
So, is Split worth seeing? Honestly, that’s your call (I mean, obviously it is with every film since I can’t wrestle those tickets for Suicide Squad out of your hands, but you get what I mean). Are depictions of people with mental health problems as dangerous and unhinged in the media damaging for people with actual mental health problems? Yes, undoubtedly. If you can get past that- and I’m by no means saying you should, or have to- Split is a perfectly entertaining psycho-thriller. But don’t be surprised if, like me, you leave the cinema feeling a little unsettled by more than just McAvoy’s performance.