The Good, The Bad and The Critic

Established on March 19th, 2012 and pioneered by film fanatic Michael J. Carlisle. The Good, The Bad and The Critic will analyze classic and contemporary films from all corners of the globe. This title references Sergei Leone's influential spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Split (2017) and Mental Illness

Title: Split 
Year: 2017
Director: M. Night Syamalan
Country: US
Language: English
In 1999 Director M.Night Shyamalan arrived in Hollywood with his universally acclaimed picture The Sixth Sense, which would eventually be nominated for an Oscar for "Best Picture" at that year's Academy Awards. His "twist ending" was so shocking to audiences that Hollywood couldn't help but made the "twist ending" a fad for the next couple of years (see: Fight Club, A Beautiful Mind) He followed this with the beloved Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) then killed his career with flop after flop like The Village (2004) and The Happening (2008). With Split (2017) it seems he revitalized his career with a quick shot of adrenaline to the heart.

In Shyamalan's latest, three girls are kidnapped by a man (James McAvoy) with a diagnosed 23 distinct personalities. They must try to escape before the apparent emergence of a frightful new 24th.

Upon watching Split (2017) with my wife, she noted that while the film was "good" it had a very problematic and cliched view of psychological disorders. My response was "Filmmakers aren't doctors, they are entertainers. They don't need to be accurate when it comes to psychological disorders movies." However as time has passed I wonder if my initial response was too shallow and thus incorrect. After-all M.Night Shyamalan's film will reach millions of people all across the world, many of whom have never met a person with dissociative identity disorder.

While making Split, Shyamalan confessed to having had a lifelong fascination with dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as split personality, or multiple personality disorder, and frequently mislabeled as schizophrenia. Unfortunately he is not a psychologist nor does he personally know anybody with the disorder (which is actually a pretty rare illness in real life) so he gets his information on mental illness the same way most of us do; the media. 

Unfortunately the media, especially when it comes to DID, is not very fair in the way it handles mental illness. In his 1991 study, Paul Hunt revealed the top ten ways disabled people are portrayed in television and film:
  1. The disabled person as pitiable or pathetic
  2. An object of curiosity or violence
  3. Sinister or evil
  4. The super cripple
  5. As atmosphere
  6. Laughable
  7. His/her own worst enemy
  8. As a burden
  9. As Non-sexual
  10. Being unable to participate in daily life
Disability is always at the forefront of a character's personality, even though in reality a person's disability may not have a major impact on who they are as a person. I have a heart condition, but this does not really make me "different" from anybody else. I can have relationships, I can hold a job, I can go to school, I can participate in everyday life. The only thing I can't do is exercise as much as the next person. So what? 

People with DID have it especially difficult, because the connection with the mental illness and the "horror" genre was created long before Cinema was even a thing. In 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a literally classic that negatively portrayed a "multiplex personality" during a time when being sent to the mental institution was pretty much a death sentence. Seriously, the people of the 1800's had little respect for the mentally disabled as human beings. 

Presently Dr Simone Reinders, a neuroscientist studying DID at King’s College London in collaboration with universities in the Netherlands, claims that films like Split can be seriously damaging when it comes to public perception of mental illness. "They make it seem as if patients with DID are extremely violent and prone to doing bad thing." In reality people with that condition, as well as Schizophrenia and a whole host of other typically "dangerous" disorders are no more violent than people without any disorders. However, this understanding may make it harder for people with DID to find help as many people will judge them based on their condition alone. 

With Split Shyamalan stumbles in his ham-handed use of mental abnormality as a stand-in for the superpowers of heroes and villains. Juxtaposing real hardships with fictional tropes lends itself to gross oversimplifications. This isn't the first time the Director has made slanderous use of mental illness (In The Village the twist is that the monster all along was a group of mentally challenged people) The man loves to portray the disabled as "others" who shouldn't be understood and are just objects in the way of "normal" people's lives. 

Spectrum "disorders" ought to be viewed as a different way of functioning, rather than "inferior" or "wrong" . Most people who are non neurotypical can function just well in our society if they are not constantly stigmatized. Of course non-nerotypicals are not told they can be "anything they want to be" and have to overcome prejudices to get to where any "regular" person can be.  All this misconception does make it difficult for one to want to get a diagnosis and to "come out" as differently abled. 

Of course, maybe this is all nit-picky. Perhaps a baseline for factual accuracy is a bit much when it comes to the horror genre and perhaps we're giving the media too much credit when it comes to shaping our worldview of disability. Granted Darren Arnofsky's Black Swan (2010) deals with mental illness in a more respectable and subtle matter. Even Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is more than just his illness

Personally I'm torn on Split (2017). On one hand Shyamalan gives us a very exploitative view of mental illness; taping into misunderstood fears created by the media. His character, though wonderfully acted by James McAvoy, is shaped solely out of a misconception of DID. The other characters, though neurotypical, don't have much of a personality either.

On the other hand, Split is an intelligently crafted film that builds up into a shocking climax. We are told about this "beast" throughout the film and we constantly anticipate its arrival. The score, as well as the atmosphere, is haunting. The 2hr run-time feels fairly short and I do like that this doesn't rely on horror cliches like jump scares or an excess of blood and guts. If viewed without the implications of disability and the media, it's a pretty fun film.

Watch Split (2017) for yourself and determine if it's a great horror or a cliched exploitative mess. Please also communicate with non-neurotypical people to get a good understanding of what they are really like.

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