How Uneven Portrayal of Mental Illness Ruins a Well Made Film

Dissociative Identity Disorder(what used to be known as Multiple Personality Disorder) is a rare mental disorder where one person has at least two distinct and enduring personality states. This change in personality cannot be explained by other factors such as substance abuse or other medical conditions. Psychologists and psychiatrists are still in disagreement on whether it should be classified as it’s own disorder or is a mix of other various psychological disorders.

This past Saturday I went and saw Split, the new M. Night Shyamalan film. I walked into the theater with next to no expectations as Mr. Shyamalan has continued to disappoint audiences time and time again ever since his breakthrough film “The Sixth Sense.” In his new film, one of the primary characters suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Through most of the film Shyamalan does a fair job of portraying this character, as well as another central character with depression, but towards the end of the film this fair portrayal turns into one of unfortunate terror, a portrayal that could scare both people who suffer from the psychological disorder about how they are perceived by their peers and the general public about how people suffering from the disorder act. First though, let's touch on some of the positive aspects of the movie which include the overall atmosphere and some technical aspects of the film.  

Shyamalan does what he’s known for and sustains a level of suspense he introduces almost right as the film begins. There are only about five minutes of runtime before the audience is put on the edge of their seat. Once the film enters its primary setting of the mysterious basement where the girls are taken captive, Shyamalan makes great use of the new space he has introduced. He takes advantage of the natural claustrophobic feeling of the rooms by using a plethora of close ups and medium shots of the girls whilst they’re in the locked room. He also does a great job of slowly introducing the space, always surprising the audience with a new creepy aspect to the old building.

Shyamalan gets great performances out of his two main characters. James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy both put on an amazing show, James McAvoy in particular who has to constantly switch into completely different mental states to play all of the different personalities that his character Kevin has within him. It’s impressive to believably play a character that has multiple personalities but still seems grounded within the same overall being. Anya Taylor-Joy isn’t overshadowed by McAvoy though. She is the emotional rock of the film and shows off a lot of the potential she showed in “The Witch”, another horror movie where she  plays the central female character. She never gives off the sense that she is overacting which often seems to be the problem with actors in the horror genre.

The director is back to form with this film and it’s great to see him finally make another film that is worth watching, but Shyamalan unfortunately is extremely irresponsible with his uneven portrayal of mental illness. Although he does do a good job of portraying mental illness with Taylor-Joy’s character, this is not enough to save the film from controversy. Through showing her past we start to understand her mental illness and we develope a sympathy for her. She isn’t portrayed as “crazy” or someone who is a detrimental part of society. This is nice and all, but all of that good portrayal is completely thrown out the door by the development of McAvoy’s character. Throughout most of the film McAvoy’s character is not shown as a monster. Through Betty Buckley ,who plays Dr. Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s therapist, we are given a decently accurate insight into the therapist-patient relationship and are given a much better understanding of what Kevin is going through. All of this understanding is obliterated by the climax of the film. The climax is extremely unrealistic (it is a movie, after all) but the problem lies with how many audiences will interpret it. Kevin ends up forming a new personality within himself called “The Beast” which is a personality that acts as if it is possessed by some sort of demon or monster. “The Beast” according to Kevin, is the next step of human evolution created with the help of his disorder. Even if someone can see how unrealistic this is, they could still see someone with mental illness as a menace to society through the ending of this film. Additionally,  someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder could see this film and be terrified that “Split” represents how they are viewed by other people, or that they are capable of what McAvoy’s character does.

Shyamalan returns to form as a filmmaker with his new film “Split.” He has created his first worthwhile film since “Unbreakable” and shows off his mastery of sustaining suspense, yet with all of these positives, he should still be socially conscious enough to realize how the end of his film portrays mental illness, and Dissociative Identity Disorder in particular, in society.