In online circles, oddball auteur M. Night Shyamalan has become something of a pariah, regularly ostracized by critics, but especially savaged by fanboys and fangirls for his sideways approach to certain fantasy and horror films; some cannot forgive his live-action adaptation of The Last Airbender. Frankly, I don’t believe his reputation as the worst thing that ever happened to Hollywood is one the director deserves. To be fair, most of his films are not very good, full of clunky storytelling, a weird sense of humor, and – especially with Lady in the Water – an embarrassing sense of self-aggrandizement. But I admire that he has original ideas, and will stick by them, no matter how misguided they may be. Say what you will, he is trying to make bold, striking, interesting films, and most certainly has a unique voice. I would rather watch any of Shyamalan’s films again than have to sit through, say, any of Michael Bay‘s rotten, sexist, fascist actioners.
So I have been waiting patiently for Shyamalan to return to us with the kind of great, notable genre picture that I know he’s capable of providing. I may have gotten my wish with The Visit, a smaller, more intimate, and skillfully satisfying thriller about broken families and insane old people. It’s a film with a great pace, a great look, an interesting story, a fun twist (natch), and a pair of immensely talented and appealing young people – Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould – in the lead. Also, unlike a lot of thrillers, is actually about something.
DeJonge and Oxenbould play a pair of teens named Becca and Tyler – about 16 and 13 – who have been sent by their mother (Kathryn Hahn) to spend a week with their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) in mom’s remote country childhood home. Mom had a falling out with her parents many years ago, and hasn’t spoken to them until this visit from the grandkids. Becca, a young film student, has taken it upon herself to stage a reconciliation using her ever-present video camera, and speaks to the audience in stagey film school language cribbed directly from The Power of Myth and Save the Cat; she talks about “the elixir” and waits patiently to crack out “denouement.” Tyler, meanwhile, is an aspiring white rapper suffering from a slightly-more-than-casual germ-phobia, and is bit of a dickhead. But then, aren’t we all dickheads at the age of 13?
As the days pass, creepier and creepier things begin to occur. Grandma, we learn, suffers from a rare form of psychosis which causes her to bang on walls and scratch at doors as soon as the sun goes down. Grandpa, meanwhile, tells stories of the time he saw “the white thing with the yellow eyes.” The kids are concerned, but their fears are dismissed by their distant mother who assures them that they are merely behaving like batty old people.
There is a generational gap here that Shyamalan is dealing with, and taps into some young people’s fear of old people; yes, kids, there will be a time when you are aged and uncool. You don’t think it will happen, but it will. There are also so many painful family memories on plain display, that you begin to assume Shyamalan is making a straightforward inter-generational drama.
The kids are on screen throughout the entire film, and they are both rich, textured, interesting characters, played by two very natural, talented young actors. Not only do they look like real teens (a personal pet peeve: movie teens that look like the 25-year-olds they are), but they have a good deal of emotional intelligence, and the recognizable teenage frustration that comes from being powerless in the face of adults. I appreciate any filmmaker that can create real child characters, and this is one of Shyamalan’s talents (The Last Airbender notwithstanding).
There is a big reveal, of course; that seems to be Shyamalan’s preferred metier. But the film is, unlike some of his previous films, not all about the twist; the narrative trickery doesn’t alter what the film is really about. And, by using so much textbook storytelling-class language, The Visit seems to be constantly commenting on its own film-iness. It’s a film with visual and verbal wit, a wonderful cast, a great tone, and more suspense than one usually gets. It’s a good, mid-budget thriller.
Welcome back, Shyamalan. We’ve missed you.