A decade ago it was impossible to discuss supernatural thrillers without invoking the name of M. Night Shyamalan. After exploding into the popular consciousness with The Sixth Sense, the writer-director staked his claim with carefully crafted follow-ups like Signs and Unbreakable, eventually leading Newsweek to dub him “The Next Spielberg.” But Shyamalan faltered soon thereafter, and by the time his sci-fi adaptation After Earth rolled around two years ago, his name was practically being hidden in studio marketing materials.
With irrelevancy lurking in the shadows, like one of his fictional boogeymen, the director needed to save his career. So Shyamalan switched things up — trying his hand at television with the quirky Wayward Pines, and leaving Hollywood behind altogether for his new movie The Visit. As the filmmaker told us in July, The Visit was a completely self-funded affair, with Shyamalan putting up the money so he could make a smaller film in relative secrecy without the interference of studios or outside influences. The result is the best snapshot we have of Shyamalan the filmmaker as he stands today.
Judging from the bonkers mix of horror and comedy that is The Visit, he may have gone totally insane — and that’s a wonderful thing.
The movie follows 15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (a hilarious Ed Oxenbould). Their mother, played by Kathryn Hahn, is still suffering in the wake of her recent divorce, and to give everyone some space, the kids go off for a week to visit their grandparents for the very first time. Nana and Pop Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) are warm, if not a bit quirky, at first, but as the visit stretches on, it becomes clear that something is very, very wrong.
Yes, The Visit is a found footage movie, and it’s the first clue that this is a break from the Shyamalan we’ve seen before. As a director, he built his career on meticulously crafted shots and camera moves that carried an almost mathematical precision, but that’s all thrown out the window here. Becca is an aspiring filmmaker, intent on documenting the visit for her mom, and as she enlists Tyler to help, the film takes on a chaotic visual energy that adds a layer of unease when contrasted with Shyamalan’s methodical pace. Where it differs from the Paranormal Activities of the world is that it’s actually beautiful at times; very often Shyamalan simply can’t help but find a gorgeous way to light a scene or evoke a mood, and it keeps the film fresh where the sub-genre has otherwise been pummeled into the ground and left for dead.
But visual technique is only worth so much, and what makes The Visit tick is the two young lead actors, who after a bumpy start settle into their self-conscious, found footage groove. DeJonge is grounded and believable as the older sister, her character endlessly precious and pretentious about her own filmmaking in what feels like Shyamalan having a laugh at himself for once. Oxenbould’s Tyler, on the other end, is the film’s comedic engine; a junior high suburbanite with hip-hop aspirations (he calls himself "T-Diamond Stylus") that deploys a comical adolescent bravado to cover up struggles with his parents’ separation.
Laughs and scares stack in a Jenga of oddball entertainment
That’s the other big surprise here: The Visit is actually funny, and not in a passing joke kind of way. It’s wild and outrageous, stacking laughs and scares atop one another in a giant Jenga of oddball entertainment. Contrasted with the overthought restraint of Shyamalan’s earlier work, The Visit is the Wild West; the kind of movie that uses a character’s unnerving penchant for skulking around nude as both a running joke and surprise scare, and that takes another’s obsessive tendencies and pays them off with a scatalogical gag that had me laughing and cringing in equal measure. It doesn’t always work — the mix is so bizarre that some jokes simply fail to land — but there’s a giddy energy that courses through the movie from beginning to end.
More than anything else, it feels like Shyamalan Unleashed, operating without the weight of expectations for the first time in years. The filmmaker had actually focused on smaller, character-driven films before The Sixth Sense changed his career trajectory, but ever since that early success, his movies seemed to chase the same formula, twist endings and all. The Visit doesn’t seem concerned with living up to those expectations — there’s no mistaking this for a Spielbergian tale — and it’s a fresher story for it.
This is Shyamalan without the weight of expectations
If The Visit was some midnight movie festival discovery, we’d be talking about its odd weirdness and the potential of its creator; we’d ask if they could take the promise of this small, indie film and transition into the land of big-scale studio movies. Oddly enough, it’s the same question that should be asked of Shyamalan now. But for the moment, he appears to be keeping things small. His next film is set to be another collaboration with Jason Blum, the low-budget horror producer behind Insidious and the Paranormal Activity films, and while people will certainly have higher expectations his next time out, I hope we see more of this weirder, care-free Shyamalan. He may not be making The Sixth Sense anymore, sure, but for the first time in a very long time, he’s making movies that are actually fun.
The Visit opens Friday, September 11th.
Verge Video: The Verge's interview with M. Night Shyamalan