M. Night Shyamalan’s work in the last few years has belied the talent he showed when he burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Thankfully, found-footage thriller The Visit sees the master of the twist back at his best…
There are few directors in Hollywood to have made such a dramatic rise and fall as M. Night Shyamalan. His out-of-nowhere success with The Sixth Sense made him a star almost overnight; a master of suspense and plot twists. The film made so much money that the writer-director had carte blanche in Tinseltown to make any project he wished, an opportunity he took advantage of with masterpiece Unbreakable. But the expectation on Shyamalan – with some comparing him to the great Alfred Hitchcock – was too much, even for a man as talented as him.
His work began to suffer through bloated attempts to surpass the giant curveballs of his best movies’ epic finales. Leading up to 2002’s Signs we were eager to find out what he would do next, how we would pull the wool over our eyes, and what might come out of his magician’s hat when the big reveal arrives. But after the odd, misguided conclusion to The Village, his work became more and more desperate (underlined by an unsubtle dig at the critics getting on his back in Lady In The Water); now he was just another guy making movies in Hollywood.
Studios, however, have never stopped throwing money at him. Despite The Village being a box office flop, critical failures such The Last Airbender, The Happening and After Earth have all doubled or tripled their production costs in theatrical ticket sales. But there was something missing: these were movies made by a once great auteur now going through the motions. Now, finally, he has his mojo back.
Shyamalan is tireless; he’s made at least one movie every two years since 1998. He’s a man brimming with ideas – 2010’s Devil, directed by John Erick Dowdle, was based on a story he conceived – and 2015’s The Visit sees the thriller-maestro resurrect the creative juices that made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable such classy slices of suspense. Adapting the found footage approach, Shyamalan applies his skill at slow-burning tension, enigmatic mystery and dazzling plot twists to the documentary a teenaged brother and sister make about their first meeting with a pair of estranged grandparents.
You might think, with so many films over the years, Shyamalan was bound to strike it lucky with one eventually, but The Visit is more than that. It’s a piece of work that suggests a once fine filmmaker has found his love for the medium again. He’s even willing to go outside his comfort zone. As a director historically obsessed with the motion and framing of the camera, here he goes DIY as duties are left up to a pair of young actors.
That doesn’t stop him staging some trademark set-pieces – a frightening encounter under the grandparents’ house makes full use of the found footage approach, while a seemingly innocuous kitchen clean-up turns into a brilliant nod to the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Neither does it prevent him from implementing the sort of enigmatic narration that has been the cornerstone of his best work: the cryptic clues, the red herrings, the plot twists. The documentary conceit also ensures events are organically factored into the final cut making the siblings’ growing sense of unease far more effective.
Shyamalan also goes back to using largely unknown young actors, reminiscent of Haley Joel Osment appearing in The Sixth Sense. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould as Rebecca and Tyler Jamison are an engaging pair, each actor ensuring these kids never feel like caricatures. Rebecca’s perceptive intelligence belies her age while Tyler’s youthful exuberance and sense for adventure is the catalyst for the film’s most intriguing plot turns. I was also impressed with Deanna Dunagan as Nana; there’s a classic Hollywood sensibility to her gravelly intonation that’s beguilingly unthreatening.
Whether The Visit exhibits Shyamalan purposely going back to basics (it was made for a fraction of the cost of his other movies) or simply hitting upon a good idea, the writer-director has rekindled a long, almost lost passion for the art. In fact, the film features his best twist since The Sixth Sense. Let’s hope this isn’t just a one-off.