It's not exactly a "return to form," but M. Night Shyamalan's 'The Visit' is at least an intriguing peculiarity
The Visit Universal Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie and Kathryn Hahn
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 34 minutes
September 11, 2015
(out of four)
The M. Night Shyamalan of The Visit - the writer/director's first original conception since 2008 - is not an M. Night Shyamalan I really recognize, and I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is probably his best film in 13 years; confidently strange, and surprising in its style and tonal impulses. On the other hand, it feels like he's punching below his weight, a superior filmmaker polishing a usually-awful subgenre ("found-footage" horror) into respectability.
Found-footage visuals are generally written off for their uniformity and/or ugliness, but what's interesting is how they're just as demonstrative of their directors' perspective as any other format, albeit with a more limited visual language. Typically, it seems like the director is telling us, "I have no idea how to compose shots anyway, so this time I'm going to pretend I'm doing it on purpose." Too often it's a built-in excuse for poor filmmaking. Deliberately making something look like amateur footage sounds better (and easier) in theory than in execution. But that makes it all the more apparent on the rare occasion someone really knows what they're doing. The clarity, intent and dramatic impact of every shot and camera movement in Matt Reeves' Cloverfield, for example. Or Sebastián Cordero's carefully composed static shots in Europa Report.
Added to that short list now is Shyamalan, who, even while handing his visual perspective over to a couple of teenage characters working with a borrowed camcorder, demonstrates such a firm command of how and when to impart information. His surprises come in moments when something (or someone) unexpectedly enters the frame. He chooses to be disorienting, and to keep his dramatic rhythms wildly out of step, deliberately at the expense of the "family documentary" his protagonist is trying to create. What he does with the format is both a clever exploitation of its strengths and limitations, and a comment on the logic of how it fundamentally operates.
Now let me get back to those mixed feelings, if you'll forgive the personal detour for a few minutes. Shyamalan was one of the first filmmakers I actually noticed, who made me aware of what a directorial vision and aesthetic could be. To an extent, this was just timing. The Sixth Sense came out when I was 16, right before I really dove into movies as my primary infatuation. Aside from a few others I'd been raised on and whose reputations I'd basically taken for granted (Spielberg, Hitchcock, just name-brands like that), he's the first director I remember consciously recognizing - and I started focusing on the way he framed his characters, the way he revealed details, even the way he manipulated, beginning with that breakout hit and extending to his 2000 masterpiece, Unbreakable.
Now, like any budding cinephile, I quickly moved beyond that early influence to discover more and better filmmakers, but there remained in me a sense of excitement about his work - and for good reason. The more I learned to understand cinematic language, the more I realized what command he had over it. His direction was elegant and classical, but consistently imaginative and even witty. Even after the catastrophe of The Village (which was completely miscalculated and badly written, but not poorly directed), he continued to grow as a director. Lady in the Water may be a failure (again, the writing), but the filmmaking in several of its sequences is thrillingly creative.
The sad realization, at that point, was that his cinematic vocabulary and artistry were expanding just as his ideas were getting more and more misguided. And now here we are years later, with Shyamalan on a losing streak of more than a decade - including the likes of The Last Airbender, which felt more soulless and creatively impotent than I had previously thought him capable. Even though I've championed some pieces of his recent work (he directed the hell out of the first hour of After Earth, despite the story issues and the terrible final half-hour), gone is the feeling that he's capable of greatness.
For The Visit, his return to original storytelling, he teamed up with low-budget producing maestro Jason Blum, and the result is certainly interesting. But there's also more than a tinge of regret that a filmmaker of his talent has been reduced to going the found-footage route.
The story is relatively straightforward: a brother and sister spend a weekend with their grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan), meeting them for the very first time due to their mother's long-standing estrangement from them. But not long after the kids arrive, Nana and Pop Pop's behavior becomes ... odd. At times inexplicable. Are they ill? Evil? Insane? Just suffering from the downfalls of old age? Is there a supernatural element in play? Was there a good reason their mom (Kathryn Hahn) left them behind so many years ago?
Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is Shyamalan's proxy; she brought the camera along for the trip to make a home movie of sorts, and she enthusiastically spouts off about storytelling and filmmaking principles to her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a mischievous, overconfident would-be rapper. Nana and Pop Pop are delighted by their grandkids ... at least when they're not asking them to climb into the oven or having a spontaneous nervous breakdown whenever they're interviewed by Becca on camera. (They're patient, but want little to do with their granddaughter's little movie project.)
The creepiness and even occasional terror of Becca and Tyler's weekend visit is constantly tempered by streaks of bizarre (and often disgusting) humor. You could say Becca sets out to make one type of movie (a heartfelt family documentary) and winds up making quite another (a warped pseudo-fairytale). The revelations that eventually come aren't especially interesting, and the third act (as well-staged as it is, from an action/suspense standpoint) is somewhat poorly calculated. But from start to finish, I admired The Visit's relentless peculiarity, its complete commitment to weird impulses. So while I may not find myself as excited by Shyamalan's efforts as I once was (in fact, I dreaded the film going in), I can at least once again say I enjoyed one of his movies. That twinge of lingering disappointment will just have to keep lingering.