Being an M. Night Shyamalan supporter is a lot like cheering for a professional Vancouver hockey team. A very long time ago we were on top of the world but, a few close attempts later, all that remains are the distant memories and the frustrating present. Like the Vancouver Millionaires’ Stanley Cup win in 1915, Shyamalan’s masterful The Sixth Sense amazed the world when he was only 29-years-old. Although there were close attempts to recreate that magic in Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, the filmmaker never received the same acclaim or box-office success. Recent years have been tough. Ticket sales are down. Support has been dwindling. The lowest point was when Columbia Pictures didn’t even advertise the director’s name on any of the promotional material for After Earth. Imagine watching a sports team too embarrassed to wear their own jerseys. He was at that point.
I mention Shyamalan’s infamous history because I think it’s crucial to understanding not only the charm of The Visit, this small found-footage horror/comedy, but also what makes me enthusiastic about its successes and willing to overlook some of its obvious failures.
This is by far the funniest film he has ever made. It may not be one of his best but it is still a welcomed and delightful return to form from a writer-director whose self-seriousness became self-parody. In his recent travesties, After Earth, The Last Airbender, and The Happening, we laughed at Shyamalan but in The Visit we laugh with him.
Using stock characters and themes from some of his past work, The Visit is about the internal conflict in a family – mainly a mother’s inability to connect with her kids like Mel Gibson’s character in Signs and Will Smith’s role in After Earth (and many, many more of Shyamalan’s films). This is his first movie to examine a generational rift between kids and their grandparents but, unlike the director’s other work, which is mostly concerned with finding the serious drama in these situations, The Visit seems to be parodying that dead-pan seriousness.
The director can often be distinguished by his unawareness to preposterousness. In Signs a girl’s paranoia over drinking water led to a great epiphany about how God has a grand plan for our lives, and in The Village a blind woman sees through her town’s cult mentality by venturing through the scary woods alone to get medicine for her sick lover. This is a filmmaker that once had a character named Cypher Rage utter,“Graviton buildup could be a precursor to mass expansion.” The only mass expansion we could see was Shyamalan’s ego – his inability to reconcile his pretensions with his asinine execution.
Thankfully, whenever The Visit verges on self-importance, it lightens the mood with self-reflexive gags, ridiculous payoffs, and absurd imagery. The characters don’t lend themselves to drama as much as Shyamalan would like but he exploits some of their quirks for humorous situations, one of which is among the most hilarious moments in any film this year.
Rebecca, an aspiring filmmaker that is the director behind this film’s found-footage conceit, and Tyler, a wannabe rapper who uses pop singers’ names as swear words, meet their grandparents for the first time when their divorced mother goes on a vacation with her new boyfriend. Years earlier, the kids’ mother had a fight with her parents; they haven’t spoken in years. The children stay on the farm, spend time with their grandparents, and try to take the first steps in mending their broken family. But soon after their arrival the grandparents act bizarre and violent.
Familial dysfunction has effected Rebecca’s view of her own body-image and Tyler has become a germaphobe. These character attributes are relatively close to the two kids in Signs – Bo’s fear of drinking water is akin to Tyler’s fear of germs, and Rebecca’s psychological struggles are very similar to the conflict Graham faces after the death of his mother. Shyamalan may be reusing archetypes and dealing with similar themes, yet The Visit is far lighter than anything he’s ever made.
Tyler’s germaphobia isn’t a metaphor; it doesn’t lead to any substantial dramatic moment. Rebecca’s self-loathing seems tacked-on and inorganic. The mid-section of this film is devoted to drama and characterization but it drags because we don’t buy either of the protagonists. Dialogue has never been Shyamalan’s strong suit, so Rebecca and Tyler are too much like a middle-aged perception of children rather than realistic, relatable kids. Tyler, an eight-year old, correctly uses the word “mise en scène,” and Rebecca, fifteen, constantly talks about the “cinematic” quality of an image and how she doesn’t want to use a certain composition because it’s “exploitive.” This is annoyingly unnatural.
For The Happening or The Last Airbender this was detrimental but, unlike those two, he is not trying to express social commentary about how we treat the environment. The Visit, in a way, feels like an apology – a lampooning of old ways. Rebecca’s pretentions as a documentarian seem to reflect Shyamalan’s as a filmmaker, and it feels like he is humorously acknowledging this parallel.
Near the beginning, when Rebecca first arrives at her grandparents remote farm, she asks Tyler to stand in front of a slowly swaying swing because it’s a cinematic image that also alludes to her mother’s past – she used to play on it as a kid but now it feels slow, grey and old. Tyler makes fun of her sister and refuses to cooperate in the staging of the scene. Later in the film, as the grandparents get off their rocker and start lashing out violently, Shyamalan uses a similar shot of the swing to set the mood, the way Rebecca wanted. It’s a dark and atmospheric composition that you might have seen in something like The Village. The Visit is Shyamalan’s first film where atmospheric shots of trees, old sheds, and creepy old people (like the crazy elderly women at the end of The Happening) are like punch-lines.
(Note: the next paragraph has a spoiler.)
It’s also the only time in a Shyamalan film where someone has told a serious story about divorce and the payoff was witnessing a character tackle an old person and smash his skull open with a fridge door. And no, this scene is not trying to make a statement about the fragility of the human condition; it’s just stupid, absurd and lighthearted fun.
Despite the emotional immaturity and willingness to redeem Rebecca and Tyler’s mother after already subverting any attempts for a climactic family group hug, The Visit is consistently entertaining even though an uneven middle act drags with weak characterization. But even then, it’s still good enough to make you see dead people – glimpses of a M. Night of old.
Mr. Shyamalan, I’ll put my jersey back on and accept your apology.