It’s over fifteen years since the name M Night Shyamalan became synonymous with the supernatural with the release of The Sixth Sense, a reputation he strengthened with Unbreakable (2000) and The Village (2004). He was known as the master of twists and some were ready to announce him “the next Spielberg,” but then something went wrong, and in a reversal echoing his own plotlines, Shyamalan lost his edge and his credibility.
Each of his subsequent projects, Lady In The Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010) has been received with increasingly poor reviews culminating in the near universal shunning of After Earth (2013). Now Shyamalan is trying to reclaim his critical acclaim with The Visit, a self-funded and more intimate project which he filmed in relative secrecy to avoid influences and pressure of major studios.
Rebecca Jamison (The Sisterhood of Night’s Olivia DeJonge) and her brother Tyler (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’s Ed Oxenbould) have never had a chance to meet their grandparents. Their mother Paula (Tomorrowland’s Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t seen her parents for fifteen years after she walked out of their house, a teenager who fell in love with her high school substitute English teacher who then abandoned her to bring their children up alone.
Now “Nana” Doris (Prison Break’s Deanna Dunagan) and “Pop Pop” John (Daredevil’s Peter McRobbie) want to meet their grandchildren so Becca and Tyler are invited to spend a week at their house while Paula has a romantic break with her new boyfriend. An aspiring filmmaker, Becca wants to make a documentary about her mother’s childhood home, the places and people she knows only from stories, in the hope that she will be able to reunite the family and bring her mother the long needed forgiveness for her actions on the day she left which she refuses to discuss.
At the first glance Nana and Pop Pop are warm and perfect grandparents, but something isn’t quite right; behind the freshly baked cookies and endless pots of tea, behind Nana’s grey bun and starched apron there is something sinister, and as the weirdness progresses the film evolves from Becca’s intended documentary to a mystery-solving investigation.
Funny and distinctive, the teenage leads DeJonge and Oxenbould are excellent, the way they behave together and interact with their mother and grandparents making them feel real and very likeable characters. This same can be said of the more experienced Dunagan and McRobbie, with the sometimes disturbing performance of Dunagan especially praiseworthy.
Produced by Paranormal Activity‘s Jason Blum, it’s Shyamalan’s first found footage footage movie and though well done it suffers from the endemic problem of the format, that the story is padded (the train journey with its insufferable supporting characters gurning for attention, unpacking suitcases, cooking) and too simple to fill the 94 minutes, but he doesn’t bring anything new other than competent acting and direction not often associated with the sub genre.
The requisite clichés are present in abundance (jump scares, dark basements, strange noises at night, no mobile phone reception on the remote farm), reinforcing the received wisdom that the format is practically dead and dry, so while it seems risky for a director in Shyamalan’s tenuous position to enter the genre knowing its weaknesses he uses the main strength of found footage effectively, trapping the audience in the perspective of the person holding the camera.
The reasons for Becca filming the trip are valid (the absurdity that someone would keep filming in moments of terror a necessary and accepted conceit) and cinematographer Maryse Alberti has successfully created the illusion that the footage is created by inexperienced kids but avoided the nausea inducing overly shaken cameras which haunts the genre. Unlike many found footage movies where characters constantly argue for no reason, talk nonsense or endlessly discuss their recording equipment, The Visit at least offers some character development, letting us know the emotions, dreams and motives of the characters even if it isn’t advancing the minimal plot.
With so little substance, where Shyamalan used to be known for his twist endings that in fact is all he has to offer here, the whole film in service of one single moment with all that goes before largely misdirection rather than progression leading up to the narrative swerve before a final misjudged coda accompanied by maudlin plonky piano, a tacked-on sentimentality which Becca has railed against in her own artistic endeavours as though Shyamalan were mocking his characters or the audience, or perhaps both.