James McAvoy‘s new film Split brings to the spotlight Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), better known here in the UK as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD). Kevin Wendell Crumb isn’t your average case of Jekyll and Hyde, he doesn’t just have two personalities fighting inside of him… he has twenty-four. When I saw that this film was going to be directed by M. Night Shyamalan, the same man who directed the first horror film I ever saw, The Sixth Sense, I new that this was going to be good.
So, first: the positives. James McAvoy is one of my favourite actors, and he does not disappoint in this film. He has meticulously thought about his portrayal of each personality, from voice to posture. Hedwig is a fantastic source of comic relief “etc.”, and Barry a well-developed, interesting character to glue the others together. His attention to detail was emphasised by the clever combination of visual and audio to create a claustrophobic, uncomfortable atmosphere. The film didn’t use cheap tactics to frighten the audience, using only one jump-scare, and virtually no gore, yet still having half of the cinema covering their mouths in horror and me shaking at points. The three young actresses, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula were gripping in their roles, complementing McAvoy so that every member of the audience forgot they were in a cinema, and truly believed what they were seeing onscreen.
Warning. The below contains spoilers, if you do not want to know how the film ends, please do not continue reading.
This film has received some criticism for being problematic, due to the fact it portrays people with personality disorders as dangerous and impulsive. Dr Simone Reinders suggests that ‘movies such as Split can be extremely damaging’, and that films such as these lead to an increase in the stigma around such mental illnesses. Whilst I agree with this outlook, I don’t think it’s as dangerous as Reinders suggests. To make Crumb into a murderer is a trope. His personalities such as ‘The Beast’ follow the same path as Mr Hyde, hurting those around him, despite Dr Jekyll’s (Jane’s) attempts to control his actions. Ultimately, using such an old, over-used motif means that most of the audience will understand that this is just fiction, that these people – in reality – are not dangerous.
Organisations such as Mind and Time To Change are working hard to alleviate the stigma around mental health problems in society. Currently, we are caught in a difficult cycle with regards to mental illnesses. The attitudes surrounding issues such as depression, anxiety, and more complex disorders (such as MPD), cannot be changed without sufferers speaking out more. However, by them speaking out, there is now a belief that these sorts of problems are fashionable. This means that the severity of these conditions, and their impacts upon our day-to-day lives, is undermined. However, its films such as Split which encourage these attitudes, and cause problematic thinking in vulnerable people, as they see mental illnesses glorified on the big screen.
Now I’m going to shift the focus away from Crumb, and introduce you to Casey Cooke. Cooke is played by twenty-year-old actress, Anya Taylor-Joy.
Taylor-Joy is given a difficult role. Her character is closed and detached. She is the centre of gossip at school, and generally an outcast. It is obvious from the opening of the film that she is going to become a central character because of the raging “misunderstood” vibe she gives off. Quickly, we begin to see that she is the most resourceful and intelligent of the three girls who are abducted, but also that she has trauma in her history. The series of flashbacks tell the audience before they have any evidence that something in this girl’s childhood made her like this. But it isn’t revealed until very late in the film that she was molested as a child, leading to her rebellious and detached nature, as well as some pretty serious self-harm.
And this is my problem with Split. We see a young, vulnerable woman, effectively stripped down to her underwear, revealing a mess of old scars over her stomach and shoulders. And this is what saves her. The Beast says “the broken are evolved”, suggesting that to self-harm, suffer with a personality disorder, or be a victim of abuse augments you as a person. It makes you more “pure”, and makes you superior to your peers. Yes, I understand very well that this film is a metaphor for how these people are fighters and survivors, but I also see that it’s situations like these that young people are seeing and getting their unhealthy behaviours from. It demonstrates to vulnerable people that to be like this is desirable, and gives you an armour against suffering.
On top of this, is the psychiatrist, Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). An older woman who has devoted her life to DID sufferers, such as Crumb. However, it is her belief that has fuelled Crumb’s disorder, and allowed it to become this dangerous. But Split had an opportunity with Fletcher to provide a resolution. Instead, they make her powerless, and show her being overpowered by the darkest parts of Crumb’s mind.
This is not the sort of message we should be sending out.
Therapists are fundamental in the recovery process of any individual with a mental illness; and the media is one of our key resources in informing the public. By finding the root of the problem (if there is one), and dealing with it head-on, the individual begins to understand why they are feeling and acting the way they are, and can start to alter any problematic behaviour. Without therapists, people with mental illnesses would not have the tools necessary to make positive progress, therefore it is important to represent this in the media, and as the powerful service that it is. Not a useless endeavour, like in this film.
I loved Split. I loved the casting choices, the plot, and the characters. It’s the first film that has truly scared me since I was about twelve. It was gripping, and poignant, and dark. I’d love to see more films like this; however, I also see how fragile these topics are, and know that, no matter how much I enjoyed this film, the subject should have been handled differently. And that’s what’s wrong with Split.
I watched Split at Sonar Film, the in-house cinema at Southampton Solent University. To check out what’s on, go to: http://www.sonarfilm.co.uk/now-showing/