“Split” and Shyamalan: A case study

As we move past the holiday movie season and into the New Year, there are a couple of movies to look out for early on and into the spring. “Split” is one movie that had critics and audiences talking alike due to the now notorious M. Night Shyamalan as a director. Known for his unanticipated twists and arbitrary cameos, Shyamalan created a niche following as a director after surprising audiences with his mysterious stories following compelling characters.

A certain bunch of his earlier films such as “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs” were critically acclaimed and helped Shyamalan acquire a significant following, building anticipation for his then promising career in the director’s chair.  Unfortunately, some false confidence may have followed, or pure bad luck as Shyamalan struck a few low notes as he released six new films, all striking out among viewers and critics. Due to an expectation of a “classic Shyamalan twist”, or maybe too much interference from production companies, people began to give up hope as they walked out of theaters seeing some of his later films such as “The Happening,”The Last Airbender” or “After Earth.”

As Shyamalan took some time to think about his directorial vision and work on a new project, the general population was not in high hopes when his name flashed across the screen for a new film, “The Visit,” as the director. Alas! People and critics showed an overall positivity to the film, and liked it! So, he began the grueling task of climbing back up the mountain, and trying to reclaim his title as a praised director and storyteller going back to his roots.

“Split” tells the story of three girls being kidnapped by a man, Kevin (James McAvoy), who suffers from dissociative identity disorder carrying along 23 personalities in his psyche. The movie has a coherent and suspenseful story, accompanied by a darker earth toned palette and well composed shots; thanks to the director of photography, Mike Gioulakis, who inspired Shyamalan from his work in “It Follows.” James McAvoy also deserves an honorable mention with his convincing performance playing 23 different characters all of which have very unique voices and behaviors. His idiosyncratic mannerisms and well-acted voices help sell the story and character in a way that I have rarely seen in movies covering dissociative identity disorder, and helps showcase his prowess aside from playing Charles Xavier.

I am going to take a look at the accuracy of the film’s portrayal (excluding the last 15 minutes) of dissociative identity disorder, which was a disorder popularized by certain films such as “Psycho,” “Fight Club” or “Identity” generally under the name of multiple personality disorder.

Using the 5th edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM 5) for reference, I was impressed by the movie’s presentation of the disorder, and its awareness to certain issues with a diagnosis. The disorder itself is characterized by disruptions of consciousness in the subject, which may affect memories, his or her identity, body representations, and behavior.

Our main character, Kevin, shows many of the diagnostic features, such as the presence of two or more identities, dissociative amnesia, and different perceptions of his own physicality when changing identities. I also appreciated how his therapist, Karen (Betty Buckley), accurately mentions the disorder being on a spectrum, instead of the dichotomous nature many people think mental illness consists of.

Another place the movie hit the nail on the head was its inclusion of Kevin’s identities suffering from other pathology, such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, or impulsivity which is typical in those suffering from dissociative disorder. We see flashbacks of Kevin experiencing traumatic situations as a child, which is correlated with an increased risk of the disorder, again showing accuracy to the DSM 5. One characteristic frequently found in those diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder is the need to hide the symptoms, or embarrassment and confusion about the symptoms which was also displayed by McAvoy during his spontaneous therapy sessions.

Overall, I was impressed with the research and accuracy of the films portrayal, and definitely recommend it if you want some insight into the disorder, or are a long-time Shyamalan fan. Though there are some minor shortfalls in the portrayal of the disorder, it gives insight into the suffering of those who are given the diagnosis, and help us gain a small amount of comprehension and compassion of what is being experienced.