Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

The Effect of Split

Torn between appreciation of cinematic craft and social awareness and solidarity on M. Night Shyamalan's latest film.

“I wanted to take something scientific and psychologically proven and keep going with it,” says Director M. Night Shyamalan about Split, his latest film about an individual with Dissociative Identity Disorder, who kidnaps three teenage girls.

When I first saw the trailer, I was weary of yet another Shyamalan movie, as well as the possibility that it would contribute to existing stigmas of a real psychological disorder that affects .01 to 1 percent of the population. Of individuals with DID, 99 percent have experienced trauma at a young age. This is a serious disorder that could easily be portrayed insensitively by a director known for melodramatic, bad horror.

That being said, this was the best Shyamalan movie since Signs—the writing was not overly fantastical like The Village or Lady in the Water, and filled with effective suspense. The movie explores trauma and coping with trauma—not only in the involuntary form of DID, but also in less obvious ways that become apparent only in times of high stress or crisis. James McAvoy, who played a cop with borderline personality disorder in 2013’s Filth, delivered on a challenging role of Kevin. Anya Taylor-Joy, who has been building her a repertoire of creepy roles since appearing in films such as Morgan (2016) and The Witch (2016), was good, too.

But more important than the above review, I would like to emphasize the film’s reception by people with DID.

Through the character of Dr. Karen Fletcher (excellently played by Betty Buckley), Shyamalan somewhat addresses that DID is, in fact, a real disorder and not wholly represented by the director’s singular interpretation of it. Dr. Fletcher does not only counsel and treat Kevin (McAvoy’s character), but many other patients who, presumably, are not violent killers. Where her role bleeds from reality to fiction is her argument that DID can change the physical characteristics of a person: that within one person with DID, one of the associated “alters” (different personalities within a split personality system are referred to as “alters”) can have diabetes, amphetamine addictions, or be more muscular and stronger, without affecting the physical existence or consciousness of the other alters. Case and point, Kevin.

Shyamalan places childhood trauma at the center of the film’s conflict, where other characters cope with it differently than Kevin. Still, Kevin’s involuntary coping mechanism is DID, thus furthering the stigma that people with DID are dangerous. Although Shyamalan did much better with subtlety of storytelling than some of his recent films, his disregard for how this film can encourage discrimination against people with DID is distasteful and hurtful.