“Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved! Rejoice!” – The Beast
M. Night Shyamalan’s unexpected blockbuster Split wasn’t initially billed as a comic book origin story, but the spoilers immediately revealed that’s exactly what it is. Going into it without that knowledge possibly makes the journey a bit more fun, at least it did for me, because it gives a hindsight context to the initial tone of the film. It made the standard Shyamalan twist feel a little more satisfying.
Superhero and supervillian stories deal with complex human emotions and dilemmas in mythic ways: They simplify and reduce and then expand and magnify. In this case, the controversial psychiatric diagnosis DID, or dissociative identity disorder, is explored and amplified. The concept of one person containing multiple distinct selves that not only act differently, but are kept separate from each other in the person’s consciousness, is a common but ever-fascinating and alluring fiction device. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Psycho are both iconic stories involving something like multiple personality disorder that laid blueprints for countless other popular tales. In reality, DID, is a very rare condition, and as Split exports, its a very controversial and poorly understood diagnosis amount the medical mental health community. There is so much about our brains and behavior that we still don’t understand, and maybe never will completely. The monster of the scary unknown outside of our heads is nothing compared to the monster unknown lurking inside of them.
How Split‘s Kevin Wendell Crumb’s system of alters works seems to be based on the real life case of Billy Milligan, a man who was found to have DID after several of his personalities engaged in serial rape. Daniel Keyes dissecting the tangle of narrative associated with this case in The Minds of Billy Milligan.
Part of what’s interesting about this movie is the philosophy of the main character, Kevin’s (James McAlroy) Beast alter ego. He’s a protective part of Kevin’s self that, in this world, can alter his physicality so much as to make him able to scale walls, bend iron bars, and stop bullets. The beast is driven by a sense of rage and revenge, but he has a sense of justice. He, like the psychiatrist who helped form The Beast in Kevin’s consciousness, believes that broken people have an advantage over those who go through life naive of the depth of pain that can be felt.
Casey is one of these broken people. Dennis and Patricia were staking out teenage girls who seemed to be living an unblemished and privileged teenage life. Being loved and sheltered provides a lot of advantages in the world: inspiring confidence that can be productive and gratifying, but not in this situation. Being unbroken can also create an illusion of safety and control over the world, like when Claire thinks she can escape through the ceiling.
Meanwhile, Casey was the brooding, untrusting one who tried a more psychological approach when she discovered the child alter Hedwig. She wasn’t crafty enough to trick Hedwig, though, and almost ended up with the same fate as the other girls. The reveal of her physical scars seemed a little flimsy-the pay-off felt a little thin-but the Beast character is operating on a very shallow capacity. He’s not going to sit down for a drink with everyone he wants to eat to find out if they had a bad childhood, mental illness, or some trauma in their past first. He’s a simplistic manifestation of rage and protection, a twisted Uberman, a villain with crudely outlined somewhat good intentions.
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