I just watched the film “Split” on DVD fully expecting it to be another insensitive Hollywood swipe at depicting mental illness. I emerged with mixed feelings. The film abides by a familiar abduction plot, cute teenage girls locked away in some basement dungeon with a deranged warden and complicated motives. M. Night Shyamalan (wrote and directed the film) is known for injecting a sense of unease and a bit of twisted suspense in his films. He does put his personal stamp on this one but the plotting is fairly standard. What distinguishes “Split” is our villain—a man with a serious mental illness. The trained eye easily diagnoses Dissociative Identity Disorder, however an explicit classification doesn’t come until near the end of the film.
The film treads a precarious balance between suspense/horror and character study. Any depiction of DID of all mental disorders invite sensationalism, and while I think McAvoy’s performance here is dead-on this is not your typical mental patient. My worry is that casual viewers of the film will extrapolate that this is typical behavior for the mentally ill. The truth is DID is exceedingly rare (some professionals even question its existence). People that have DID are almost always the victims of some type of horrific trauma. The director could have further humanized our villain (this inevitably makes them more interesting and compelling) with more backstory.
I did feel that the scenes between the villain and his psychologist were genuine and authentic. The writing is not lazy. The various personalities are believable and nuanced. The film is entertaining and McAvoy’s performance is delightfully over-the-top. Ultimately this is a suspense film and not a drama, but there is more effort here to treat mental illness accurately than most. The sad reality is that most moviegoers have no clinical understanding of mental illness and will view this man as a generic “psycho”. So I’m left a bit on the fence with the film. It exceeded my expectations but I guess I’m still waiting for that one big Hollywood film that gets its depiction of mental illness right.