By Kali Kushner | Assistant Culture Editor
Despite great trepidation, out of vivid curiosity, I went to see M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film “Split.” Going in, I was concerned with the seemingly antagonistic depiction of mental illness that I had seen in the trailer, but there was a sliver of hope within me, that the film could potentially end with a insightful message to the audience or society as a whole. Although I believe the film did attempt to deliver a larger message to viewers, I left the theater with a sense of fear with how audiences might interpret mental illness after seeing the film.
The story starts off with three girls being abducted by a strange man, only to wake up the next day to find that they are being held captive by a man shuddering from an extreme case of multiple personality disorder. Already the film displays an interesting gender dynamic with three girls being held against one man, begging the question: Is mental illness usually displayed as masculine in media? As I pondered this question images of Norman Bates and other male serial killers in horror films, flooded my mind. Meanwhile, feminine representations such as “Girl, Interrupted” serve to sexualize mental illness in women. In the film adaptation of “Girl, Interrupted” specifically, the cast is made up of some of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs at the time (i.e. Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie). In contrast, mentally ill men are mostly depicted as grotesque murderers. “Split” also plays into the preexisting motif in which mentally ill men cross dress and are feminized by their mental illness (i.e. Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill). One of the main personalities present in the antagonist is a woman named Patricia whom is presented to us by James Mcavoy donning a skirt and earrings. When Patricia was initially introduced, the theatre was filled with laughter and the audience continued to laugh throughout the movie whenever this personality was on screen. I was especially disappointed by the crowds reaction to this character, as it took away from the serious issues present in the film and instead reduced the dialogue on sexual abuse and mental illness to a heteronormative joke.
One of the biggest topics covered in the movie is the fact that mental illness is often unrecognized by society. We see this expressed by the antagonist’s therapist, as she works to have her research on the antagonist recognized at a conference on mood disorders. At the forefront of her research, is the concept that people who are mentally ill are more than human. From this point on, the plot took on a sort of twisted X-Men story in which neurotypicals are put in a position of having less power than the mentally ill as the therapist claims that the antagonist’s mental illness has unlocked the full potential of the human brain. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a depiction of mental illness in which it is desirable and for good reason as it is extremely problematic. Only someone who does not deal with the daily ramifications of mental illness would write such a story.
In the end, the antagonist becomes literally more than human and involves himself in multiple acts of murder and cannibalism, presenting mental illness as something that should be feared. Aside from this, there is a strange twist at the end of the film in which the protagonist’s life is spared by the antagonist when he finds out that she is a victim of abuse. This leads to a strange plot solution in which the protagonist’s abuse is what saved her life in the end; creating a sense that, in this situation, she should be thankful for being abused. Unfortunately, M. Night Shyamalan does not provide the audience with anything recognizable close to a solution. Instead the female protagonist potentially returns home to her abuser and the antagonist plans on wreaking more havoc, but on a larger scale.
So what is the audience supposed to leave with? Like the film, is there no happy ending for the mentally ill? The only message I managed to scrape from this odd film is that it should not take such horrible extremes, like the antagonist, for mental illness to be recognized by society.