If you have somehow managed to avoid seeing Fight Club until now, you might want to look away now. Same goes for the movies we’re about to discuss, because for most, the thing that unites them is what you call a big ol’ SPOILER!…
Well, if you’d read Chuck Palaniuk’s novel of Fight Club before seeing the movie when it came out in 1999, then you already knew the spoiler: In which rock’n’roll alpha male Tyler Durden turns out not to be a real person at all, but rather a dissociated, dominant personality of the nameless narrator who occasionally refers to himself as Jack. It’s a fun twist even if you didn’t see it coming, but it did get us to thinking about other great movies featuring split personalities – some of which rely on a big twist, and some don’t…
Now, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller classic is considered today to be the gold standard for classic movie twists. In more ways than one; there’s the reveal that Norman Bates’ mother is just a split personality in his traumatized mind and he’s been the killer all along, but way before that we had the shocking-for-its day moment where Hitch offed his leading lady 30 minutes into the movie. Building up Janet Leigh as the star of the film only to reveal very quickly that the movie is about someone else entirely simply wasn’t done back in 1961, and the strangely jovial trailer that Hitch shot featuring himself goes a long way toward keeping his film’s secrets completely unrevealed. (Another fun fact: Theatres were instructed not to admit anyone after the film began, so they’d get the full experience. Word of mouth was so good the admittance policy didn’t keep anyone away.)
The Three Faces of Eve (1963)
During the 1960s, you also had split personalities as character study – the sort of thing that B-movies did more often, to be honest, exploring mysteries of the mind with a sort of marquee relish. But it gained mainstream footing with this movie starring Joanne Woodward, based on a best-selling book about a woman with three dissociative personalities; Woodward was a huge star (and part of a Hollywood power couple with Paul Newman) and her intense, multi-faceted role skyrocketed her right to an Oscar for best actress. She became so well known for this bravura performance, that almost 15 years later it felt very evolutional for Woodward to turn up in…
…where this time, Woodward is not playing the dissociative patient, but rather the psychologist who studies her. The title role is taken by Sally Field, who firmly breaks out of her then-well-known persona as a sitcom star by playing a socially awkward woman whose childhood abuse at the hands of her mother manifested into seventeen different personalities. The crazy part is, this one is also based on a true story; as a four-hour miniseries it’s a bigger commitment than most of these films, and while some of it feels dated, Field’s incredible range and the truly shocking childhood memory sequences are timeless.
Now, we’ve recommended some very strange films in this column before but make no mistake, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is one of the strangest. In the few years since its release, folks are still vigorously debating just what the hell the meaning of it it all is. What is undebatable about this hauntingly peculiar film is it features a low-fi version of the same technical wonder that Villeneuve brought to Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 (dat weird spider imagery doh); and Jake Gyllenhaal is tremendous as two identical men who… might in fact be the same man? Can we ever be sure? A top-notch head-scratcher, this one.
So if you were lucky enough to see Split in theatres with no spoilers, then you already know that its big fun twist has nothing to do with James McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell Crumb is harboring 23 separate personalities; that is revealed fairly early on. The trademark M. Night Shyamalan shocker instead comes in the form of its connection to 2000’s Unbreakable, with Bruce Willis’s hero in the final moments sitting in a diner observing the origin/birth of a new supervillain on the TV. Before Glass – which unites all of these supers, including Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass – arrives next year, give Split a revisit; it’s definitely not perfect, for example none of the young teenage captives of Crumb’s are terribly well-developed beyond Anna Taylor-Joy’s heroine. But McAvoy is absolutely remarkable; it’s hard to remember a split-personality performance in which an actor morphs not only their voice but their entire physicality so completely. Several times.