It is understandable to hate those bad artists who create bad work. More frustrating, however, is watching as good artists create bad work. It can be painful, watching as someone who does possess talent digs themselves down further and further into a hole of terrible stories. You want to see them turn it back, bring themselves back to the realm of exceptional work they had started with, but instead they sink into the abyss. One filmmaker who serves as an example of such a situation is M. Night Shyamalan. M. Night Shyamalan first took to the scene with the powerful The Sixth Sense, grabbing our attentions with the tale of a boy who could see ghosts. He then followed that up with Unbreakable, which tells of the beginnings of a super-strong superhero. Both are terrific thrillers that high-light the skill that Shyamalan does have in crafting a narrative. However, his work took a sharp plunge after that, his work becoming known for horrible plots, terrible acting, and ridiculous twists. It is as if he’s become more known for his flaws such as The Happening rather than for his first two features. That’s why it is refreshing to see him come out with a film like The Visit. Well, sort of.
Done in a “found footage” style, The Visit is centered around young teenagers Rebecca and Tyler Jamison. When their grandparents (whom they have never met) send a message to their mom about wanting to see their grandkids, Rebecca and Tyler insist on going despite their mother’s reluctance. For Rebecca, she sees this as the chance to make a documentary that could help mend the wounds left between their mom and their grandparents from a bad incident in their past. At the start, they seem like a nice couple who care for them and love this chance to finally see their grandchildren. However, as the week progresses, they begin to exhibit odd behavior. Despite them brushing off any questions about it with explanations of how they’re old and people begin to fall apart as they age, it becomes clear to Rebecca and Tyler that they may be in grave danger at the hands of their grandparents if they stick around for much longer.
Now, there are glimpses of the Shyamalan we once remember in this film. Though it starts a little rough, he manages to rack up the tension as the story unfolds. He plays the horror within this story well, capturing a sense of the fear that can come from watching our elders exhibit dangerous behavior as they fall apart. After all, who hasn’t been at least a little afraid when around an elderly person whose mind is beginning to slip from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease? It can be a little scary, watching as someone you know has begun to lose the sense of who they are and may react severely because of it. Shyamalan also shows that he can handle good character development. Throughout the film, Rebecca’s efforts to shoot this documentary lead to several sequences where she and her brother perform interviews. During one poignant sequence of interviews, both are forced to examine their own issues, stemming from a father who had left them. It’s a quiet sequence, but one that offers a keen insight for them. It also helps that Shyamalan also decided to have some purposeful comedy in the film, offering a slight pressure valve that both offers a counterpoint from the horror and a reprieve from recent films where he played things far too serious all of the time. However, there is a reason that I said glimpses rather than a full return.
Though the comedy does offer a good pressure valve, there are times when it can be cringe-inducing. Mostly, this seems to be in how Shyamalan has written the teenagers themselves. Tyler is depicted as an aspiring rapper, taking time to spout out improvised raps that sound about as well as you might expect from someone writing a teenage boy without any clue of how they are. Rebecca herself is constantly spouting out five dollar words as she speaks in cinematic jargon on how to best frame or capture a shot. Both personalities are grating and it feels like an older person’s attempt to write youth. The result is that it feels out of place and not natural for characters their age. The more grating parts of their personalities at least subside for the most part as the story goes on, but it can rub some people the wrong way early on. Another issue that I have is how Shyamalan uses the “found footage” approach. Namely, it feels rather loose in actually sticking to it. Instead of going for a natural feel like most attempts at the “found footage” style, the cinematography feels very constructed with some establishing shots that leave me wondering how they were gotten within the confines of the narrative. In a way, Rebecca’s interest in making this documentary feels like a way to give Shyamalan an easy out for both shooting something with the easier approach of “found footage” while still sticking to conventional shots. It is like he wants to have his cake and eat it too, but the result feels a bit lax on fully achieving either. Still, I wouldn’t completely write this film off.
Yes, the film is plagued by issues. A lot of it feels like it comes from familiar problems that people have had with M. Night Shyamalan. However, there is still good work that is on display here, glinting alongside the darkness of his flaws. The result is a movie that is alright. It is not the abyss of awful with works like The Happening, nor is it a great piece of filmmaking like The Sixth Sense. It is firmly alright. In a way, that’s perfectly fine. It means that there is still some talent in Shyamalan. Perhaps making more films on a small budget with a simple story and bare bones cast might help steer him back to where he once was.