I went to see Split on my twenty-third birthday, and I was very excited. That was partly because my birthday was the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and it was a way to not think about, you know, events. But it was mostly because I am an M. Night Shyamalan apologist, and he was back! I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and The Happening, and after a string of bad decisions, he was resurgent. He’d had a surprise hit on television with Wayward Pines and his previous film, The Visit, had been both well-received and profitable. Now it was time for his redemption story to go mainstream with his biggest success since Signs.
And it did.
Measured by return on investment, Split was Shyamalan’s most profitable movie, turning $9 million into over $250 million, and it received some of the best reviews of his career. It was number one at the US box office for three consecutive weeks (a record in Shyamalan’s filmography matched only by The Sixth Sense), it had a sequel greenlit by April, and James McAvoy is one of the year’s prototypical examples of an actor locked out of the Oscars race by genre rather than merit. M. Night Shyamalan brought his reputation back from the dead with one of the year’s most successful movies.
And I hated it.
I hated it, I hated it, I hated it. I found it embarrassing and infuriating and even, in places, disgusting. I couldn’t stand Split, and yet, at the same time, I agree with people who say James McAvoy should be a bigger part of the Best Actor race. I don’t think Split is without merit, especially after rewatching it to prepare for this piece, but that’s almost the worst thing about it. Most of the bad movies I saw in the past year were mercifully forgettable – I’ve had to be reminded many times that I’ve seen both The Mummy and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. But Split is still coiled in my brain, not just because it was such a disappointing failure, but because it was such an interesting one.
One of the very first posts on The Sundae was a look at another interesting failure, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, where I didn’t bother trying to make a single coherent point about such an incoherent movie, and just listed, in mostly random order, some thoughts about it. We decided to use that post as the basis for a new recurring series called Notes on Failure, and today, just over a year since I first sat in a cinema and voluntarily let Split burrow into my skull, I’m ready to finally pull it out and vivisect it on the Internet.
What follows are a non-exhaustive series of thoughts on the most disappointing film of last year.
1. Though it’s an indirect sequel to Unbreakable (and I’ll have a lot to say later about that), in the context of M. Night Shyamalan’s filmography, Split is an artistic successor to The Visit and The Happening. All three play around with horror, humour and the line between them, and both Split and The Happening borrow stylistically from a combination of B-movies and Hitchcock, while The Visit also has mentally-ill antagonists. In every way that The Visit and The Happening are similar to Split, Split is worse.
2. I’ll get the good notices out of the way: the opening sequence is pretty much perfect, right up to when Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) wakes up in the cell where Kevin (James McAvoy) is keeping her and her classmates Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). There is one part of the sequence that feels like a bit of a cheat, when the camera showing Claire and Jessica in the back seat is clearly occupying the physical space where the back of Casey’s seat should be, but it’s a stylish cheat, so I don’t care. James McAvoy is astonishing as Kevin, which is the name I’ll use as a shorthand for the role as a whole, rather than call him Kevin / Dennis / Patricia / Hedwig / Barry / Jade / Orwell / The Beast each time. It’s not just that he makes each alter or identity feel like a whole person, or that he makes the moments when they switch on-screen feel fluid and organic in a way that’s very uncommon in your garden-variety multiple-personality performance. It’s not even the incredible physical acting he puts into his performance, though I have to assume James McAvoy’s body ached all through the shoot and for a couple of weeks after, given he goes from walking around with his knees up around his chest as Hedwig to straining every muscle in his body so hard it looks like his face might split open as the Beast. What really puts his performance over the top is how subtle and richly-layered it is, the best example being the reveal about halfway through the movie that every time we thought we’d seen the personality Barry visiting their psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), it was actually the personality Dennis impersonating Barry. Dennis and Barry have different accents, and when we see a video of Barry later in the film, we see that Dennis’s accent was occasionally slipping through when he was impersonating Barry earlier. Most actors struggle with letting their own accent slip through, but the extremely Scottish James McAvoy played Dennis (who has a Boston accent) impersonating Barry (who has a Brooklyn accent) and had his fake Boston accent slip through into his fake Brooklyn accent.
3. The rest of the cast is hardly untalented, but there’s not much for them to work with. One of Split’s biggest weaknesses is that it substitutes exposition for character work anywhere that it can. Fletcher and the kidnapping victims are all pretty intelligent, but they spend so much time trying to outsmart Kevin that we never really see them as people outside of how they relate to Kevin. That’s not so much of a problem with Fletcher, since she’s Kevin’s caretaker and advocate, but it’s very frustrating with Casey, Claire and Marcia. Casey in particular is supposed to be our protagonist, but whenever Split has time it could spend on showing her personality, it just does a flashback to when she was a small child instead. I don’t have any kind of baseline for what Casey is like as a person, or how she behaves, so it’s hard to get a sense of her reaction to the events of the movie. Is she staying relatively calm, or is she just losing her shit silently? We’re told in the very first scene that she acts out a lot in school and gets in fights with teachers, but it’s too vague to give us much of a picture. When she goes off on her teachers, what’s her script? Is she a pseudo-rebellious “this is all bullshit, it’s not gonna help us in the real world” kind of person, or is she more of a “oh shut up, you fat bitch” type? I truly don’t know a single thing about Casey other than her backstory, and her backstory is just a plot device to explain her survival skills and eventually reveal she’s an abuse survivor.
4. Alright, so let’s deal with the meat of the matter. Kevin is portrayed as having dissociative identity disorder (DID) and there’s no way to do that without opening a big can of worms. DID is an extraordinarily controversial condition that’s subject to massive disputes in the world of psychiatric medicine and widespread misinformation in society at large. I’m usually not too gone on the notion of “getting it right” when it comes to portrayals of mental illness because mental illness isn’t particularly amenable to specificity. Diagnosis of mental illness is based almost entirely on symptoms rather than underlying physical causes because such causes are ill-understood at this point in medical history. That doesn’t make mental illnesses not real, but it does make their definitions messier than most conditions, especially since it’s possible to have more than one mental illness at a time. I care far less about characters with mental illnesses adhering to a particular model of how someone with a given mental illness “should” feel and behave than I care about emotionally truthful portrayals of the experience of being a mentally-ill person. But I’m making an exception for Split because of DID is such a controversial condition and because media portrayals of DID are directly implicated in that controversy.
5. The politics of the DID controversy within psychiatric medicine are too complex and esoteric to detail in a critical essay about a movie, but I’ll try to give a simplified version. Whether or not DID exists at all is relatively uncontroversial, and pretty much nothing else about it is. The two main schools of thought on DID are called the traumagenic model (i.e. DID is caused by trauma) and the sociocognitive model (i.e. DID is caused by social or cultural cues). The traumagenic model is what’s usually portrayed in pop culture, which makes sense because the thesis behind the sociocognitive model is that DID doesn’t arise naturally in mentally-ill people, but that mentally-ill people are induced or inspired to adopt the behaviour of people with DID as portrayed in popular culture due to exposure to certain controversial psychiatric therapies like memory recovery or age regression. That might sound like it means DID isn’t real, but under either model people experience the same or similar psychological distress, it mostly just has different implications for treatment. Split seems aware of this controversy, because it portrays Fletcher as a crusader for people with DID under the traumagenic model, which makes it even more troubling and gross how Split goes on to portray people with DID. I love The Visit and I love one of Split’s biggest influences, Psycho, even more, so I obviously don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with mentally-ill antagonists in horror movies, or at least in individual horror movies. I think mentally-ill people are portrayed as dangerous due to their mental illness far too often in pop culture, especially when all evidence shows mentally-ill people are far more likely to be targets of violence because they’re mentally-ill than be perpetrators of violence because they’re mentally-ill. But that’s a problem in aggregate, not an issue with any given work of art – it wouldn’t matter if it was a smaller percentage of portrayals of mentally-ill people. Each work of art needs its portrayal of mental illness to be judged on its own merits. On its own merits, Split comes up short.
6. The first way it comes up short is its use of the ticking time-bomb trope, which is a specific subset of the “mentally-ill people are dangerous” trope that I just think is almost always bad, no matter what. Split portrays Kevin as someone who was, until very recently, well-adjusted and functioning despite his illness. He’s held down a job for ten years and diligently attends his sessions with Dr Fletcher. But lurking within Kevin are a group of evil personalities called the Horde – the obsessive-compulsive paedophile Dennis, the religious fanatic Patricia and their chosen object of worship, a superhuman cannibal called the Beast – just waiting for the chance to take control and inflict mass violence on the world. When he experiences a fresh trauma (two high-school students sexually assault him), it allows the personality Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy, to take control of “the light” and decide which personalities are allowed to be dominant. Hedwig gives the light to Dennis and Patricia when they promise that no one will ever make fun of him again once they allow the Beast to emerge, setting the events of the film in motion. There are mental illnesses, albeit very rare, whose symptoms, without proper medical intervention, can include violent episodes, and it is obviously possible for otherwise immoral and violent people to be mentally-ill. But where Split crosses a line for me is making Kevin someone whose mental illness creates in him a permanent potential for violence that goes beyond the ordinary human potential for violence and then makes his path to violence inevitable and unstoppable, even though Kevin is one of Fletcher’s biggest success stories and was well enough until this point to hold down a job for ten years. Fletcher briefly suggests she didn’t spend enough time discussing the assault in therapy and that encouraged Dennis to take the light to protect Kevin, but we know that’s not accurate: Hedwig took the light and just let Dennis and Patricia use it out of self-interest. Even if she was right, she also says that Barry and all the other identities she spoke to insisted they were fine, so, short of forcing a traumatised patient to talk about something he didn’t want to (which would hardly have helped), it’s not clear she could have done any different. Once Kevin was assaulted, the film doesn’t admit the possibility that anything could have been done, by himself or by anyone else, to stop him from becoming the Beast. And that notion of mentally-ill people as ticking time-bombs forever on the cusp of violence is so wrong and so pervasive that any work of art that reinforces it is doing something deeply unjust.
7. Of course, Split is only reinforcing that destructive notion if it gives the audience reason to believe anything it says is accurate. Split’s central conceit – that people with DID can change their physiology to match their alter – is obviously not based on real science, but there’s a sliding scale of plausibility to the claims made by its main scientific authority, Dr Fletcher. This is where Split shows its awareness of the DID controversy and utterly massacres any of the good will it could possibly have earned. Dr Fletcher isn’t just a psychiatrist, she’s also an activist for two claims that she always treats as one claim: that DID is a real mental illness in the traumagenic model AND that people with DID can change their physiology to match their alter. One of those claims is plausible, and one of those claims is pure fiction, but both are treated and judged as a single claim within the movie. Fletcher’s cause is advanced when she’s invited to give a lecture via Skype at the University of Paris and set back when she’s denied her own panel at a major conference and offered a seat on the mood disorders panel instead. When she learns about the latter from a colleague, she’s indignant, because DID is not a mood disorder. The colleague questions the evidence she submitted – a video of a dog behaving differently around a patient dependent on their alter – and Fletcher is offended that he would dare to question that DID exists AND that people with DID can change their physiology to match their alter. Split consistently collapses to the two claims into one, and it does so in a way that makes some of its non-plausible claims seem plausible.
8. First, while the film treats the superhuman abilities of the Beast as obviously fantastical (Fletcher, on learning the Beast exists: “There must be limits to what a human being can become!”), a number of physiological changes are discussed in the film, some of which seem more plausible than others. Dogs behaving differently around people based on their alters doesn’t seem that mad if people with DID can change their physiology to match their alters, because dogs recognise people in large part on scent and scent is a fairly minor aspect of physiology that changes all the time based on what we eat and other factors. There’s lots of evidence of a human ability to unlock hidden reserves of strength in times of distress due to an adrenaline rush, so it’s less plausible but not totally implausible that people with DID can vary in physical strength from alter to alter. One of the least plausible claims is the ability to regenerate tissue, in the case of the blind woman who could see when she developed alters with sight, but even that has some hint of plausibility to it because humans do regenerate damaged tissue and our mental state can affect our physical health. Only when we get to the most exotic of the Beast’s abilities – crawling on walls and impenetrable skin – do we truly cross into the world of pure science-fiction.
9. Second, it treats Fletcher’s claims as the only claims in dispute when it comes to DID. Though Split is aware that DID is a controversial condition and refers to it as such more than once, nothing specific about the controversy is ever brought up. The traumagenic vs sociocognitive debate is not mentioned. No debates about the nature of DID – like whether alters are fully discrete identities with individual biographies that happen to share the same body, as Split portrays them, or the shades of difference between them are smaller and subtler – are mentioned. You either agree with everything Fletcher says or you don’t, and since most people are under the impression that DID exists (although most of us know it as multiple personality disorder), that makes Fletcher seem like the only reasonable authority in the film.
10. Third, it shows that Fletcher is right about all her claims – Kevin has DID and changes his physiology during the film – which makes us further distrust and disbelieve anyone in the film who claims otherwise.
11. Fourth, the film takes inspiration from mad scientist B-movies like Trog in the same way that The Happening takes inspiration from paranoia films. Just as The Happening ends with a news anchor explaining the events of the film, Split features long scenes of uninterrupted exposition by Fletcher about DID throughout, much like Joan Crawford’s scientist character in Trog or, to a lesser extent, the psychiatrist at the end of Psycho (itself essentially a high-class B-movie). Fletcher’s beliefs about DID are constantly repeated and reinforced. She gets to argue her case with a nosy neighbour and an unsupportive colleague, she gets to deliver a Skype lecture at the University of Paris and she reiterates herself constantly when speaking with Kevin. Split never presents anything Fletcher says as wrong, even when her beliefs cross over into “we only use 10% of the brain”-type stuff about how people with DID might be the next stage in human evolution. “We look at people who’ve been shattered and different as less than,” she tells her neighbour. “What if they’re more than us?” Of course, the lack of any meaningful challenge to her beliefs doesn’t matter when Fletcher is saying stuff that’s obviously made-up, because most people aren’t so ignorant of basic reality that a horror movie could convince them that human being can climb walls like Spider-Man if they believe hard enough. But there’s lots of kind of plausible things in Split, including claims not made explicitly by Dr Fletcher, like how it portrays alters as fully discrete identities with individual biographies that happen to share the same body. Given we’re already inclined to believe DID exists at all, and given the film puts us so much on Fletcher’s side of the debate, it’s only too easy to imagine Split making people even more misinformed about DID. Some myths spread through pop culture, like the 10% of the brain myth, are basically harmless. No one’s gonna hurt themselves trying to unlock their full brain potential. But myths about mentally-ill people affect how mentally-ill people are treated in society: they’re ostracised from the company of others, targeted with violence and have their political efforts to improve the provision of mental healthcare met with disinterest because people believe they’re dangerous or faking it for attention or possessed by evil spirits, or whatever else. When it comes to a condition as uncommon, misunderstood and yet overrepresented in popular culture as DID, it’s pretty unconscionable for any movie to traffic in as many destructive tropes as Split.
12. Split’s themes of survival and trauma and empowerment are where it had the most potential to be a great movie, and where its failure is therefore most interesting. Fletcher and the evil personalities of the Horde both believe in an extreme version of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Fletcher doesn’t just think people with DID are “more than us”. In her lecture, she asks rhetorically “Have these individuals, through their suffering, unlocked the potential of the brain? Is this the ultimate doorway to all things we call unknown? Is this where our sense of the supernatural comes from?” The second question is particularly mad. Fletcher believes DID might be the answer to all the unsolved questions in the world. It’s not clear whether the Horde arrived at their beliefs independently or have taken Fletcher’s crazy beliefs a step further, but regardless, they believe that DID doesn’t just make them more than other people, it makes them superior to other people. When the Beast comes fully to the fore, he rants at Casey about his belief system: “Only through pain can you achieve your greatness! The impure are the untouched, the unburned, the unslain. Those who have not been torn have no value in themselves and no place in this world!” He spares Casey when he sees that her shoulders and stomach are covered in self-harm scars. “You are different from the rest,” he tells her. “Your heart is pure! Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved.” This notion taps into lots of popular inspirational ideas about trauma and mental illness that can probably be summed up best by this selection of cringeworthy memes:
Of course, I understand the impulse stuff like this is responding to. No one wants to feel as pained and ugly as trauma and mental illness so often make us feel in a world where both are so heavily stigmatised, and memes like these don’t just tell us we’re not less than other people, they tell us we’re better than them. But romanticising trauma and mental illness isn’t good for anyone. It discourages people from seeking treatment, especially in consort with other harmful notions about mental illness like the myth that creativity and mental illness are strongly connected and that mentally-ill creative people will lose their creativity if they pursue treatment. Beyond that, it’s just one example of a number of tendencies that romanticise suffering and claim that suffering makes you superior that have been harmful throughout history. Mother Teresa withheld care from poor people because she believed suffering brought them closer to God. Much contemporary social justice discourses assign the right and priority to speak based on a hierarchy of oppression and attempt to exclude people from participation in political discussions and struggles unless they’re willing to disclose personal information like sexuality and disability to “prove” they’re entitled to be involved. Split seems like it wants to be critical of these ideas, since it presents the Beast’s emergence as a horrifying moment for Fletcher, when she sees her well-intentioned ideas take a monstrous, violent form. But, in the end, it reinforces them. Apart from the fact that Kevin’s DID literally does make him superhuman, the ending of Casey’s story implies that the suffering she experienced at the hands of the Horde has given her the strength to finally go to the police about her uncle’s abuse. I guess she should be grateful she was kidnapped by a serial killer.
13. The reveal that Casey has been sexually abused by her uncle is handled horribly, not least of all because it’s purely used as a plot device and nothing of Casey’s perspective or feelings about her own abuse are ever brought into focus. I tend to think scenes of sexual abuse are usually gratuitous anyway. They rarely convey any new information to an audience who know full well how assault works, and how the characters feel about it is either obvious enough or can be brought out just as well in scenes set after the assault, whether immediately so or long after. Lots of the best popular art about sexual violence, like Jessica Jones, is great precisely because it avoids portraying the fairly irrelevant details of the assault and focuses instead on how it affects the characters. But such scenes are especially gratuitous when their only purpose is to inform us that a character has experienced abuse. Film audiences are pretty savvy about picking up on implications. A few visual cues are all that’s necessary to tell us a character is being abused if you don’t want to just bring it out in dialogue. Show us a shot of Casey’s uncle glancing at her skirt or making some creepy comment, combine it with the shot from the flashback to her father’s funeral where he grips her shoulder and asks if she’s gonna give him any trouble and bam we’ve put it together, there’s really no need to show us Brad William Henke naked on all fours asking his toddler niece to come over and play. It’s just disgusting and upsetting, but not in a way that produces an interesting or productive experience of disgust or upset. Jesus Christ.
14. Apart from anything else, it’s worth saying that Split just has a bad script. There are some good performances in Split, and it’s not without nice visuals (I really like Hedwig’s dance scene), but its script clearly wasn’t even proofread. In a dramatic moment, Fletcher tries to get Dennis to admit he’s impersonating Barry. “I’m gonna ask again,” she says, her voice heavy with portent. “To whom am I speaking with now?” Or, to rephrase, “Who am I speaking with to now?” In the very next scene, Fletcher asks her building’s security guard “What health-conscious fast food purveyor did you solicit to buy these chicken wings you’ve so lovingly reheated in a minor suicidal gesture?” The word “solicit” means “ask”. He didn’t ask the restaurant to buy the chicken wings. Fletcher is written far too wordy for my taste, but that’s a potentially forgivable stylistic choice of Shyamalan’s. For him to not bother getting his script proofread when he clearly doesn’t have a grasp of vocabulary strong enough to pull off such a wordy character is just embarrassing.
15. Playing with the boundary between horror and humour is something M. Night Shyamalan has done well before. I’ve written before about how The Happening uses the rhythms of comedy in scenes of horror, and I’ll write in the future about how The Visit uses funny psych-out scenes to mislead the audience. Both of those films are enhanced by the blurring of humour and horror: it’s what makes The Happening such a funny tribute to B-movies and it’s what allows The Visit to outwit an audience that’s primed to try and guess its twist before it’s ready. But Split uses it in the most boring and vulgar way possible, which is to make us laugh at a mentally-ill guy. I don’t think mental illness is a taboo subject for humour – one of my favourite comedians is Maria Bamford, whose humour is all about mental illness. I think a well-crafted suicide joke is just about the funniest thing in the world (see: every time Ted bores someone to suicide in Airplane!). And I’m not saying nothing about James McAvoy’s performance is funny. Both times I saw Split, I laughed when Dennis apologises to his kidnapping victims for trying to make one of them dance for him, because he doesn’t say he’s sorry for doing it because he was trying to harm them, he says he’s sorry for disrespecting their status as “sacred food”. That’s some good old-fashioned absurd humour. But just laughing at mentally-ill people for being mentally-ill carries an undeniable air of bullying, and that’s where Split mines almost all its laughs. When Patricia (who they assumed was a visitor arguing with Dennis) comes into the room to apologise for Dennis’s behaviour, it’s the first time their victims realise they’ve been kidnapped by someone with multiple personalities, and it’s shot with a comic rhythm. The first punchline is that Patricia is wearing a dress. Ha! A man in a dress! The crazy person thinks they’re a woman! The second punchline is Patricia is saying, of Dennis, “he’s not well”. Ha! The crazy person is so crazy he’s calling one of his other personalities crazy! Ha! What a wacko! Ha! The film has no empathy for Kevin whatsoever, and in the one scene in which the true Kevin emerges, it makes its lack of empathy clear when the only solution Kevin has to his predicament is to ask Casey to kill him. It’s one thing for Kevin to feel that way, but it’s quite another for the film to say he’s right by never admitting even the fleeting possibility that he could ever be better. Even though, again, he was doing well enough in treatment until just before the start of the movie that he’d been able to hold down a job for ten years. But one setback later, Kevin is so beyond help that he needs to be killed. Because you can’t fix broken people, you can only put them down like a dog.
16. The point-and-laugh mentality that Split has towards Kevin also traffics in other forms of bigotry beside prejudice against mentally-ill people. I won’t belabour this point too much, but apart from the “sacred food” moment with Dennis, all the laugh moments are directed at Barry (or, rather, Dennis impersonating Barry) because Barry is gay and effeminate and that’s funny because lol gay people, Patricia because Patricia is a woman and so when Patricia is in the light, ha, it’s a man wearing a dress, and that’s funny because lol a man in a dress, and Hedwig because Hedwig is a nine-year-old boy and so when Hedwig is in the light, ha, it’s an adult man who acts like a child and therefore resembles a caricature of an intellectually-disabled person, and that’s funny because lol disabled people. Split has a nasty sense of humour.
17. And then, there’s the ending. Unbreakable is probably my favourite M. Night Shyamalan film, and one of the best superhero movies ever made, so you’d think I’m exactly the kind of fan boy who’d cheer when I saw Bruce Willis in the final scene, reprising his role as David Dunn, the hero of Unbreakable, while dropping the name of that movie’s villain. I did not. I put my face in my hands and sat in the emptying theatre saying “oh no” over and over while my partner asked me what was wrong. It’s not just that it meant Split and Unbreakable were gonna come together in a terrible sequel. I don’t care at all about the sequel because I can just not watch it. The problem with the final scene is that it only makes sense if you’ve seen Unbreakable, but, if you haven’t seen Unbreakable, it spoils the ending of Unbreakable by revealing the identity of the villain. Also, it just raises lots of confusing questions about Split, because the conceit of Unbreakable is that for every person in the world with one physical extreme (Samuel Jackson’s character has brittle bone disease, i.e. extreme frailty), there is someone else in the world with the opposing physical extreme (Bruce Willis’s character is impervious to injury, i.e. unbreakable). Are we supposed to understand that Kevin, who has multiple identities and can change his physiology to match them, has an opposite with no personality and a static physiology? Isn’t that just a dead person? It’d be one thing if the Bruce Willis cameo was a post-credits scene that’s not really part of the movie per se, but it’s not, it’s the final scene. The final scene of the movie is a cameo by the protagonist of a movie from over fifteen years ago that flopped at the box office and only made its money back on rentals, a movie that almost no one who went to see Split has seen, and which spoils the ending of that very movie while also ruining the ending of Split by being either confusing nonsense, if you’ve never seen Unbreakable, or a different kind of confusing nonsense if you have.
I hate Split so much.