James McAvoy is surrounded by women, even from within; yet “Split” fails to break away from horror movie tropes. Perhaps “Split” has been overly praised due to the low bar writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has set with his most recent forays into film. How would this movie fare if released 15 years ago, when “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” gave promise of a rising star? While the tense pace allowed me to enjoy the film as it unfolded, the longer I reflected, the less I liked what I saw.
The biggest disappointment was the inclusion of the over-used horror movie trope: women stripped to their underwear. One character takes her top off (hey, look, lacy bra!), the other her pants, leaving both to walk (and run) around in lace underwear for the duration of the movie. While there is an attempt to frame this as a plot device, including a ‘reveal’ near the end attempting to justify why the undressing is key, it’s also unoriginal, degrading, and frankly unnecessary. As unnecessary as the reason Kevin gives for kidnaping the girls: they are pure (see: virginal, privileged). There is never any real explanation for why the girls’ purity is important (except maybe it’s yet another accepted horror movie trope), but if the girls are pure, why aren’t they given clothing to cover up their exposed body parts?
In much of the film, including some quality therapy scenes where the therapist (a woman!) actually does her job and notices warning signs, “Split” attempts to buck stereotypical trends. Unfortunately, this also means that when it fails, it’s all the more glaringly obvious. The girls bond together to fight back, each a distinct personality with differing opinions (the leader, the follower, the loner). But just like the clothing, only one girl truly has layers. More troubling was the multiple times a character froze for an inordinately long period of time; just long enough for her to be attacked. Sometimes they moved in such slow motion I found myself wondering if they weirdly wanted to be incapacitated. I know, I know…never blame the victim.
My final concern is how mentally ill people are portrayed in the media. And here I quote Anthony Lane because, as usual, he says it best, “The implication that personality disorders are doomed to issue in criminal madness hangs over the movie like a rank smell.” Similar to women in film, until the mentally ill are portrayed in an equally negative and positive light, we should not ignore the consistent portrayal of DID
as inevitably bad. While there exists a magical realism element in “Split”, there is also an attempt to humanize and ground this disorder only to then spin around and label it as ultimately leading to evil.
During my retrospective introspection, I began to find faults within the film’s narrative. Many aspects of Kevin’s disorder was explained (even over explained in exposition), but some of the mythology was either cut or never bothered to be explained. For example SPOILER ALERT the girls are kidnapped to help The Beast emerge, but The Beast transforms first then eats the girls… So if their purpose wasn’t to aid his transformation, then why were they even taken? Perhaps it’s a MacGuffin – but it’s a poor (and overused) one at that.
Bechdel Test: Passed in layers!
To See or Not To See: Overall, I enjoyed “Split” while in the theater, but once I sat back and ruminated over what had transpired on the screen, I found it lacking.