Welcome back to my film criticism series, in which I’m currently examining the psychological-thriller genre. In my last post, I analyzed Last Night in Soho (2021) and its warning against romanticizing the past. Today, I’m going to discuss Split (2017), M. Night Shyamalan’s divisive exploration of mental health and trauma.
We’ve all seen the story before: a man troubled with mental illness goes on a killing spree. Psychological thrillers are notorious for this—Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), and Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019) being famous examples. While these films are lauded by many, there are those that argue that they propagate the harmful stereotype that the mentally ill are villains. Split is no exception from this criticism. Its antagonist (James McAvoy), diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID), has twenty-three distinct personalities occupying one body. The frightening twenty-fourth personality, the Beast, that emerges is a monster who hungers for young girls. Understandably, the movie has been repeatedly attacked for villainizing those with DID, depicting them as unstable and violent. Although its portrayal of the disorder is not entirely accurate or favorable, there is some nuance to it that sets this thriller apart. While psychological thrillers often treat the mentally ill as villains, the way in which Split’s antagonist is likened to its protagonist as well as the film’s indictment of skepticism regarding mental health suggest that the “villain” is actually a victim, and that the people around him are the ones to blame.
The antagonist is a foil to the protagonist Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), closely mirroring her story, suggesting that he is a victim like her. As a young girl, Casey is sexually abused by her uncle John (Brad William Henke). Flashbacks of hunting with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) show that she has a strong connection to him. But, when he dies of a heart attack, she is placed in her uncle’s care, leaving her to be repeatedly assaulted by her only remaining parental figure. Likewise, Kevin—the antagonists’ original identity—loves his father deeply. When the latter is killed in a train accident, Kevin is so distraught that his mind becomes fractured. His mother, now his sole caretaker, physically abuses him—in one flashback, simply for making a mess—causing Dennis, the first “alter,” to be born. This stronger personality allows Kevin to cope, particularly due to his affinity for keeping things perfectly neat and clean, helping Kevin to avoid his mother’s rage. Casey and Kevin are two sides of the same coin, however, they simply deal with their trauma in different ways. Casey struggles to connect with and trust people, so she purposely gets detention in school in order to avoid everyone. Still, she manages to come out a stronger person: her experience with abuse leads her to be the most adept survivor of the three kidnapped girls (the other two are eventually killed). Conversely, Kevin copes by developing alternate personalities who possess the various strengths he lacks. And, without a proper support structure in place, a strong yet monstrous identity manifests itself in order to protect Kevin. Thus, he is not a villain; he is a victim, just like Casey, and he is no more at fault for his behavioral issues than she is.
Split criticizes the air of skepticism surrounding mental illness, implying that society is partially to blame for the antagonist’s violence. It is all too common for people who have no experience with mental health issues to suggest that they are only imagined. These people will accuse DID patients of making up their alternate personalities and claim that depressed individuals are just “feeling down.” But this film goes to great lengths to establish that the alters are neither imagined nor merely different aspects of Kevin’s personality; they are distinct individuals who reside in his brain. Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), their psychiatrist, fully believes in them and actively fights for others to do the same, publishing studies and giving lectures about the reality of DID. She also recognizes that the alters’ harmful tendencies are not their fault. She says to Dennis, whom the others shun, “You are not evil to me,” recognizing that he is a victim. But, despite her best efforts, no one else seems to believe in them. This is what ultimately leads to the emergence of the Beast. Obsessed with being recognized for who and what they are, Dennis and Patricia (another alter) hold that only this identity, who possesses supernatural abilities, will make people believe. This is why they take control of Kevin’s body away from the other personalities and herald the coming of the Beast. Therefore, the people and their inability to accept the reality of mental illness are to blame for the birth of the monster.
To continue exploring the idea of the man-made monster as the result of trauma, my next post will dive into the 1977 vampire deconstruction Martin, directed by George A. Romero. Until then!