If you were to endeavor, for reasons unknown, to make a tepid horror thriller in which your killer has a mental disorder, you may be best served to make the movie so exaggerate, so silly that it can’t be taken seriously. Lest of course you minimize the severity of mental illness, propagate myths about violence and instability among those suffering from such ailments, and characterize them as goofy, violent, or both.
Split, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, egregiously fails to tell a story that isn’t utterly offensive. At numerous points during this almost eerie tale where a man kidnaps three high school girls for sinister purposes, Shyamalan has the opportunity inject some much needed levity. But instead he doubles down, seeking to validate and instill some gravity into a film that requires none.
James McAvoy plays Barry, an extroverted fashion designer, and sometimes he plays Dennis, a meticulous manipulator. And Hedwig, a curious adolescent. And Patricia, Dennis’ partner in crime. And many others. He has dissociative identity disorder, and during frequent meetings with his doctor, we are informed that his illness may in fact be a boon, and are further subjected to lengthy dialogues where the movie goes flat.
It’s unnerving that the audience at the screening I saw laughed frequently when Barry changed personalities. It’s further troublesome that Shyamalan handles emotional and physical trauma so poorly, reinforcing stigma and negative stereotypes for no reason other than to be provocative.
Which brings us to the other outrageously offensive part of this unfortunate film: the constant sexaulization of teenage girls. Dennis has a proclivity to watch young girls dance naked we are told, though he never exercises such will.; he also suffers from OCD. Thus, should the girls, while imprisoned in his underground bunker (a dank yet hardly claustrophobic local), get dirty, they must remove their clothing. Shyamalan makes sure to explain to us that Dennis doesn’t like touching, so apparently we are to be put at ease. But the camera sure likes watching, as every shot makes sure to capture the young women suggestively.
Shyamalan takes it a step further and includes a superfluous and disgusting backstory of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), our anti-social leader,, feeling the need to give her a traumatic past that involves rape. While I won’t reveal too much about how the final sorry comes together, not that it matters, there is absolutely no reason for this specific tangent to be included. Shyamalan if flippant, careless, and gratuitous.
There may have been some potential for Split, if only handled by someone far more mature. It could be fun and silly and bad, but instead it’s offensive and bad. Because it’s so self serious, and insists on reinforcing negative stereotypes about mental illness and sexual trauma while also making sure we casually sexualize young women, this piece of fetishistic trash is an uncomfortable slog. Or at least should be.