Is ‘The Visit’ enough to let M. Night Shyamalan back into our movie-going good graces?
M. Night Shyamalan has had a relationship with the movie-going public that could probably be described as “complicated”. The Sixth Sense still remains a chilling ghost story, Unbreakable was an interesting take on the superhero origin, but after that it all goes a bit wrong. Some blame the media hype around him, some blame the director’s style and over-reliance on big twists, but whatever it was, Shyamalan fell from grace in the eyes of many. A horrendously bad adaptation of beloved children’s cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender didn’t help, neither did the nonsensical After Earth (although I blame Will Smith more than I blame Shyamalan for that one). Now the director has decided to cut down to something a bit more bare bones: a small thriller based around a family. Is this strategy going to pay off and bring Shyamalan back into favour? Or is this possible return to form just as flawed as his lesser work?
Two kids, Becca and Tyler, are visiting their grandparents, whom they have never met before. Tyler is a germ-phobic wannabe rapper; Becca is a budding documentarian recording the visit to help provide closure for their mother, who left her parents’ home under less than pleasant circumstances. At first the trip is great and their grandparents seem like nice, loving, people, but when the sun goes down things take a more sinister turn.
The first thing that strikes you with The Visit is that it has a faux-documentary style. Shyamalan’s films have always had a very distinct visual design to them. After all, as flawed as The Village is, it’s still shot by Roger Deakins and looks amazing. So the decision to go for a more raw style, bordering on found footage in some of the shakier moments (and yes there is a different between faux-documentary and found footage), seems a bit odd initially. However the style matches the story in being very simple and straight-forward; we just focus on the four characters of the children and the grandparents and watch as everything unfolds. The presence of the camera also feels a lot more organic than some in this style, due to Becca’s filmmaking obsession and desire to document the trip.
Like many of Shyamalan’s films there is a certain element of genre blending, and here we have a streak of black comedy that works just as well as the thriller component. It serves to break up tension and overall makes the film more of an exciting entertainment piece than one that really sets out to terrify you, despite a few moments that are actually quite harsh. Think rollercoaster rather than haunted house ride.
One of the key things with child characters, particularly child protagonists, in thrillers and horrors is making the threat towards them feel genuine whilst never going over the line into extreme or exploitive. In this sense I would say that The Visit achieves the balance; Becca and Tyler are believable average kids and are engaging enough that when the situation becomes dire you do feel for them. The family drama aspect of the film also works quite well, being a look at forgiveness and anger within a family unit and the consequences of holding on to negativity.
The central mystery of the film is focussed of the grandparents, and whether their strange behaviour is simply “old people stuff” or something darker. Both Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie do an excellent job, playing both sweet and ominous and putting you in a position of never feeling sure about what’s going on. However it also is part of my only major problem with the film. A lot of both the tension and the comedy play on the fear and the awkward nature of being around elderly people, and sometimes that gets a bit too close to the very real place of family mental illness and dementia. It was something that I kept coming back to after the film and made me a little uncomfortable.
Overall The Visit is a well-done film and one very good to see in a large audience. Whilst I wouldn’t say that this is quite the return to form that some are hailing it, I think it does show that this kind of smaller and more focussed approach could serve Shyamalan more effectively in the future.
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