Why we still need to talk about mental health on film

M.Night Shyamalan’s new movie ‘Split’ has opened to mix of critical acclaim and criticism – it’s a tired depiction of psychological disorders and so nearly a great film

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James McAvoy’s performance in ‘Split’ is a multifaceted tour de force but the film hinges on tired tropes

Since its release last week, Split has been heralded as an exciting return to form for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. A few years ago, that sentence would have sounded bizarre. Since bursting onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has become almost synonymous with unfulfilled promise. While the supernatural thriller that made him a household name was intelligent, original and scary, the films that followed were muddled and dull, with each release managing to taint his pedigree even more so than the last. He was the only person that could have followed The Last Airbender with the somehow, inconceivably much worse After Earth. But that was M. Night Shyamalan; Hollywood boy wonder no longer.

2015 saw the filmmaker treading close to a redemptive arc with The Visit, a semi-entertaining – if largely inconsistent ­– found-footage horror flick. Split, however, seems to be the full homecoming. The film – which stars Scottish actor James McAvoy – has been generating a host of enthusiastically positive reviews, being championed across the board as an actual, real-life, good piece of cinema. There are, however, a lot that won’t be heading out to see M. Night Shyamalan’s unlikely comeback.

Since its release, Split has been the subject of an online petition that has amassed almost 22,000 signatures due to its “backwards representations” of mental illness. Mental health groups and online platforms have joined in with calls for a boycott of Shyamalan’s film, while many pieces have confronted its depiction of psychological disorders since the very first screenings.

None of this is unwarranted. The film sees McAvoy playing Kevin, a young man with severe dissociative identity disorder stemming from childhood abuse. Kevin’s body plays host to 24 different “split” personalities, not all of whom are nice. You’ve got ‘Dennis’, a violent, twitchy character who sets the narrative in motion by kidnapping three teenage girls during the film’s opening, and ‘Patricia’, an icy, sinister woman that aids the former with his malevolent plot. As well as the two aforementioned identities, there’s Kevin’s foreboding, 24th personality, ‘The Beast’ – we’ll get to him later, though. He gets his own paragraph. The point of contention is that, with Split, mental health is reduced to a horror movie trope, drawing an overt, in-yer-face link between mental illness and violence.

Shyamalan’s film isn’t the first film to make such an assumption; cinema has long been fascinated with the idea that mental disorders are a bottomless pit for violent potential. Think Rear Window, Betty Blue, High Tension, Fight Club and, Alfred Hitchcock’s original big bad, Psycho. Mental illness is a sure-fire way to guarantee some gory goings-on, and dissociative identity disorder is one of Hollywood’s favourites. Split is simply continuing with a thread that Hitchcock’s 1960 film helped popularise, contributing to a larger, problematic myth that individuals with such a disorder are the go-to guys for deception, torture and killing.

“Split is simply continuing with a thread that Hitchcock’s 1960 film helped popularise, contributing to a larger, problematic myth that individuals with such a disorder are the go-to guys for deception, torture and killing”

You don’t have to go too deep into the internet to find lists like this one: “7 Of The Best Movies Featuring Characters With Dissociative Identity Disorder”. While the title itself is heavy-handed at best, what’s even more telling is that of the chosen seven, only Edward Norton and Brad Pitt’s dual-character in Fight Club (who takes number one spot, in case you were wondering) isn’t seen to directly murder anyone on-screen. With films such as these using the idea of projected, alternate personas as violent narrative shortcuts, psychological disorder has been reduced to a simple plot device. Why waste valuable pages of your screenplay constructing a complex backstory, when you can just stick a knife in someone’s hand and let the audience know that they’re mentally ill. Such cultural regurgitation has desensitised us from questioning the method; as a viewing audience, we’re so used to seeing it that it’s become commonplace and expected.

With Split, Shyamalan takes this even further. With the emergence of ‘The Beast’, Kevin makes the jump from killer to monster – in the literal sense. The Beast isn’t a metaphor, or even a scary self-christening. As a direct result of his disorder’s severity, Kevin is able to alter his physiological makeup, transforming into a wall-climbing predator with a hankering for human flesh. While cinema has long toyed with mental illness as a representation of otherness, Split throws out the symbolism and goes straight for teenage-girl-eating monster. Somehow, it manages to strip a sorry trope of the little humanness it had left, attempting to give it scientific wasting for good measure.

What stings the most, though, is that Split is far from a bad film. In fact, it’s almost a very good one. James McAvoy’s performance is a multifaceted tour de force, while Shyamalan’s narrative unravels gradually like a claustrophobic nightmare, before exploding into an all-out slasher.

With the positivity that surrounds the film, cinema’s infatuation with psychological disorder – dissociative identity in particular – has been given a leg up. When fact and fiction are entangled in such an overt way, the implications can range from problematic to dangerous. Split’s representation of dissociative identity disorder is backwards and inaccurate, that does no help to cultural misconceptions about mental illness on a wider level. In all of its attempts to be quirkily forward-facing, Split finds itself anchored by a narrative anachronism first devised as early as Victorian England (and here’s to you, Dr Jekyll). Night Shyamalan’s return is, for him, a triumph. For millions of people across the world already battling with stigmatisation, it’s a real shame.

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