Though he’s only been working for a fraction of the time of Woody Allen, M. Night Shyamalan may well end up in the same basket, where every new release is heralded with lots of questioning cries: “is this one his return to form?” While no means set to make a dent on the cultural psyche like his debut The Sixth Sense, nor destined to become a forgotten gem like Unbreakable, The Visit is nonetheless an indicator of a man regaining his grip on the reins of his more derailing tendencies.
The basic premise of The Visit finds two teenagers staying with their grandparents for the first time, as their mother’s estrangement from her parents has ensured the teens have never met them. The elder daughter has decided to make a documentary of the trip, the ideal aim being to record the grandparents forgiving their daughter for an unspecified event that happened decades prior. All seems well at first, though the grandparents are a bit odd. Jumping out on the teens, scratching on the walls naked in the middle of the night, that kind of thing…
This being the golden age of the format, The Visit is ‘found-footage’; however, the film avoids many of the pitfalls of the style (shaky cam, “why are they filming this now instead of running away?” moments) through clever application of the documentary conceit. Most of the shots are locked down, teasing the audience with wide shot compositions where characters fill a fraction of the frame. In a film that creeps more than it shocks, Shyamalan makes solid use of the cinematic image.
It’s also more intelligent than the majority of its generic forebears, balancing measured dread with musings on documentaries delivered so lightly they could be missed or ignored entirely. The elder daughter sees herself as a filmmaking virtuoso, spouting the professional lingo without really questioning what it is she’s doing. Within the context of the film too these choices gently mock both the characters, but clearly Shyamalan is also poking fun at himself here; considering he once made himself a god-like figure in his own The Lady in the Water, this degree of humble self-awareness is a step in the right direction.
Issues of reality and artifice are brought to the forefront through these moments too, where the reactions of the children to surprising revelations are subjected to multiple takes. Ultimately it completes Shyamalan’s journey from the Cinematic Realism 101 found in his early works to greater artificiality and movie-movieness.
Concurrent with this transition is an increasingly lighter touch. M Night has moved from worthy genre fare, from the depressingly serious Sixth Sense to the solipsistic Smith vehicle After Earth, to lighter, experiential genre stuff, and it may well yet have gotten him his groove back. The worthy material has had its uses though, as it means his grasp of the language of cinema is confident. The directorial and writer choices are measured, deliberate and surprisingly subtle for a man whose last feature outing had Jaden Smith protected from the cold by a giant bird.
The scene where the teens leave their mother for instance, which moves from humour to heartbreak, is perfectly pitched as the train overtaking her running down the platform forces her out of shot. Little grace notes like this recur throughout the film, giving it greater depth than its creepy old people premise may have been afforded by other genre filmmakers.
Ultimately The Visit probably won’t linger in the individual nor collective mind as long as his calling-card debut has, but there’s certainly more to it than could be reasonably expected from M Night at this point in his skidding career. If he sticks with this kind of material, he may have found a milieu to right his stormy ship.