Let’s be honest: M. Night Shyamalan has had several hits and misses. The Indian-American writer-director has made excellent thrillers, such as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Visit. But he also made The Happening, The Last Airbender and Lady in the Water, all of which are quite cringe-worthy – and that’s putting it nicely. One can never really tell if Shyamalan’s next movie will be as good (or as terrible) as his last. So when Split was released last year, film buffs were eager to see if it’d fall flat on its face. But it didn’t.
As you might have already heard, Split is a psychological thriller about a man with 23 personalities. He kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls in an isolated facility and they try time and again to escape his terrifying clutches before the 24th personality surfaces. Starring James McAvoy, the talented Scottish actor best known as Professor X, the film brims with plot twists, though this isn’t something unexpected in a Shyamalan movie. What’s surprising, however, is the tasteful yet intriguing manner in which Shyamalan shines a spotlight on dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder), which is what the protagonist suffers from. Shyamalan carefully introduces eight of the personae and makes sure to give each of them just enough screen time without being overbearing. In fact, viewers are more often than not left wanting to know more about them, and we know what it’s like when we’re being teased – we get hooked.
Mental conditions have fascinated people for centuries and we’ve read all kinds of stories about how doctors used to treat those considered insane with equally insane methods. Dissociative identity disorder has long been one of the most controversial psychiatric disorders, and it’s exactly because it’s so unbelievable that we dig it. We, as people, love watching others go crazy – which is what Shyamalan cleverly leverages with Split. In fact, the movie is partially inspired by the story of Billy Milligan, a real person who was diagnosed with 24 personalities and who blamed his crimes on his condition. Cool, right?
Billy Milligan: Real Life Inspiration for the film Split
Shyamalan knows what keeps audiences on the edge of their seats and, with Split, he’d conceived of the idea years before writing the screenplay. He has admitted, “It sat there for a long time, and I really don't have a clear reason why I didn't pull the trigger earlier. But this felt like the perfect time to do it, with the type of movies I'm doing now, and the type of tones I am interested in – humour and suspense.” The protagonist in Split is actually a character from earlier drafts of Unbreakable, and because of the close association between the two films, Shyamalan has said that he would like to make a film combining the two in the future. If sources are to be believed, the next sequel will be one following this particular narrative.
But back to the point of it all – is Shyamalan onto something with Split? The answer is a resounding yes, as many other reviews will tell you. It’s not perfect but it does a decent job at making you want to find out what happens next. As of this month, the film has grossed some $273 million worldwide, which certainly says a lot about it. It seems like Shyamalan just might be getting his mojo back. But since we can never be too sure, we can only ‘split’ tight and wait.