by Sarah Horton
I enthusiastically advocate more representations of mental health in art. The dearth of nuanced explorations of such illnesses contributes to the erasure of those who suffer. However, careless representations of mental illness can have an equally damaging effect. M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 film, Split, for example, does more bad than good. The movie depicts James McAvoy as Kevin, a person with dissociative identity disorder, whose 24 different identities occupy “the light” at various points throughout his life and the film. The story begins with one of Kevin’s “alters” kidnapping three teenage girls, one of whom has experienced childhood abuse, just as Kevin, and ends with her being liberated, while Kevin escapes with implications of a dark future to come.
There are undoubtedly things to like about Split. The counselling scenes are rare cinematic moments of thoughtful discussion about mental health experiences. The video diaries of the twenty-four identities, one of whom is a woman who takes insulin, also foregrounds the potential physical effects of the disorder. Furthermore, Kevin’s therapist presents her patients as potentially more creative than those without the disorder, destabilising predominant portrayals of those with mental illness as passive and inferior. Any positive things achieved by this counternarrative, however, are dramatically undone in the film’s climax. McAvoy’s character ultimately transforms into the impossibly strong, “The Beast”, and cannibalises the teenage girls he has kidnapped, sparing only Casey because she, like him, is “broken.” To suggest that such mental trauma has created a solidarity of superiority between the two is highly problematic. Equating Casey’s abuse experiences with Kevin’s own also seems irresponsible. Moreover, the positive power of the counsellor is slayed when she is squeezed to death by a hug, metaphorically killed by her apparent kindness and naivete. Thus, the film abandons nuance in favour of making a “good” horror.
Genre requirements and artistic form are consistently elevated over responsibility for representations of mental health. The animalistic transformation of McAvoy, echoed by shots of prowling, caged tigers, while potentially aiming to make a complex point about the caging effects of being mentally ill in an ignorant society, ultimately dehumanises his character. The fact that animal imagery is also used to represent Casey’s abuser draws uncomfortable parallels between him and Kevin. McAvoy’s final beastly turn has repeatedly earned him nominations for “Best Villain,” further stripping his character of empathetic human qualities. Moreover, an inexplicable late cameo from Bruce Willis links Kevin to “Mr Glass,” a character from Shyamalan’s earlier film, Unbreakable, who believed in the idea of an “unbreakable human.” This knowing lookback through Shyamalan’s oeuvre reiterates the director’s predominant interest in formal, thematic and filmic experimentation. He simply uses this already underrepresented and controversial disorder as a trope through which to explore his pet theme of invincibility
The film further plays with typical characteristics of the horror genre through the apparently twisted lens of mental illness. Half-naked women are not objectified in the plot but are “necessarily” forced to take off their dirty clothes by Kevin’s alter, whose apparent OCD is portrayed as stereotypically eerie. However, Split hardly subverts these misogynistic tropes. At one point, McAvoy’s character holds a knife, angled from his crotch, towards a girl’s exposed midriff. In a film that supposedly explores the abuse of young women, these choices seem particularly irresponsible. The gory shots of McAvoy devouring the still-alive girl’s stomachs similarly conforms to the genre’s demands, ultimately both victimising the women and demonising the sufferer.
McAvoy’s performance is undeniably compelling. His transformation from a Brooklyn “fixer”, to an artistic fashionista, to a 9-year old Kanye fan is both disturbing and mesmerising. In a guardian interview, McAvoy described the role as his “dream gig”, an attempt to “have fun” and “flex his muscles.” However, I’m frankly less interested in McAvoy’s chameleon-like ability to reach his artistic dreams than an accurate and thoughtful portrayal of someone with DID. Artistic experimentation in a genre consistently devoid of new, interesting classics is a worthwhile endeavour for a filmmaker. However, using mental illness to explore the horror genre, is cheap and unimaginative. It problematically prioritises aesthetics over ethics, rather than combining the two to make an interesting and thoughtful piece of art.