Exploring the touchy subject of mental illness and apparent ‘madness’ has always been a rather beguiling but at the same time desperate endeavor for filmmakers. It seems as though the film industry struggles to maintain humanity in its portrayal of mentally ill characters, oftentimes tipping towards exaggerated depiction for the sake of shallow sensationalism. Where M. Night Shyamalan’s explosive movie Split belongs in this spectrum of accuracy or downright offensiveness, is hard to define. The film follows the story of Kevin – a kidnapper with 23 personalities (which already reeks of an exaggeration, but let’s not jump to conclusions yet). Kevin kidnaps three teenage girls, and throughout their captivity Kevin’s darker side starts to unravel.
About The Director
Shyamalan, an Indian immigrant to Hollywood, rose to prominence at the turn of the 20th century when his supernatural horror film The Sixth Sense became the highest-grossing oeuvre, second only to the first episode of Star Wars. Many were struck by the abrupt ending, which totally reverses the film’s premise. Shyamalan knew he’d stumbled across a gold mine, and spent the first half of the 2000s shooting tense stories with abrupt endings. Many of his pictures (including Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village) were very well-received.
What’s With the Ending in Split?
At first glance, Split appears to be a modest film – a chamber psychothriller in which everything revolves around James McAvoy’s brilliant acting skills. Needless to say, McAvoy delivered an excellent performance, once again proving his acting prowess.
But this is not all there is to the film. Other elements of Shyamalan’s cinematic language, such as his mastery of suspense and superb camera work, also merit mention. Yet many have felt bewildered with the vague conclusion, which leaves one with a palpable sense of hunger. Split, like many of Shyamalan’s more recent films, seems to crumble into dust, with the storyline promising far more than the ending can offer. “Is that all?” hangs in the air like a mute reproach, and the critical last chord is hopelessly muddled.
We need to dwell on McCavoy’s performance in more detail because what he does in Split is worthy of the Oscar no less than Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea. We are told that 23 different personalities live in his hero, albeit only several appear in the plot (the pedant Dennis, the infantile Hedwig, the phlegmatic and strict Patricia, the peaceful fashion designer Barry and of course, the Beast); the beautiful manner by which McAvoy breeds them all within the framework of one physical shell, downright hypnotizes the audience. He changes abruptly from a lisping jerk to a psychopath ready to devour your guts. We can detect in the protagonist not a lack of character but the full embodiment of it. He can even be considered the most vivid representation of a human being- the inherently paradoxical parts of human consciousness laid bare before our eyes.
Shaylaman created his paradoxical hero not to perchance or for the artificial portrayal of the mentally ill, but to portray the cruelties and absurdities of our motives and inclinations which are the very nature of men. We enthusiastically hope for the final meaning to be unraveled with the rising of the carpet, but we’re disillusioned to find nothing but a somber mystery, some irrational equation never to be solved completely. We are urged to become co-creators of the tragic character, read into the film’s very incongruities, and shape new comprehensions about the complexity of our own minds. It’s a matter of our choice if we disregard the main hero as a banal, evil character, or choose to dwell deeper into the intense psychoanalysis that Shyalaman offers, only to comprehend eventually that in most cases, it is we who are The Beast.