It's way too easy to forget just how genuinely disarming was M. Night Shyamalan's meteoric rise as the saviour of intelligent entertainment in the 2000s. Out of the blue, an unknown director working within genre constraints managed to become a sensation by making morality plays about contemporary America's relationship to itself and the world under the guise of smart, well-crafted genre films.
But what made Mr. Shyamalan's rise even more remarkable was that there was a sense there that it was all too good to be true. A precise polymath if there ever was one, writing, directing, producing and even occasionally acting, the director referenced classic American filmmaking more than anything, from Steven Spielberg's wide-eyed fantasies to Alfred Hitchcock's methodical constructions and Brian de Palma's twists, and he was taken under the wing of Mr. Spielberg's regular right-hand collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall.
It was all too simple, too magical, too good to be true for a director who hadn't "properly" "paid his dues" - and the rather unusual run of four really good films in a row (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village) made it seem as if he could do no wrong. Of course, Mr. Shyamalan bought into that hook, line and sinker, to the point of hubris - moving away from Disney, the studio that had nurtured him, when they posited some doubts about his pet project Lady in the Water. Eventually made at Warners, that film's disastrous reception effectively sent the director's career into a tailspin of which The Visit is the most determined attempt to pull out of.
And, make no mistake about it, it's a very calculated career move, designed to regain face: a cheaply produced genre movie made without stars in the now standard found-footage mode. The Blair Witch Project started the entire found-footage mania back in 1999 - the same year Mr. Shyamalan broke wide with The Sixth Sense - but it was director Oren Peli's Paranormal Activity series, ten years later, that turned it into a genre staple thanks to the efforts of producer Jason Blum.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Blum is also a producer of The Visit, a film that is so clearly constructed to prove Mr. Shyamalan still has "what it takes" to the point of appropriating a style of filming he had never shown much interest in. Once the lights come back up, you start to ask if there was any spontaneity involved at all and, in a way, it's understandable. The film maintains intact the director's knack for playing sly meta-narrative games: the title's "visit" refers to the trip teenage siblings Becca and Tyler (Olivia de Jonge and Ed Oxenbould) make to the Pennsylvania farm to meet their grandparents (Deanna Dunigan and Peter McRobbie) for the first time, but Becca is also filming the visit with her video camera.
Part of her motivation for the visit is to learn more about the family's past and achieve some sort of reconciliation between her mother (Kathryn Hahn) and the grandparents, who haven't spoken in a long time, but slowly it becomes obvious to Becca and Tyler that not all is hunky dory with Nanna and Pop Pop. As the frights pile up and not even their jaded knowledge of thriller clichés can put the kids at ease, Mr. Shyamalan's careful paying out of plot points and constant, if self-deprecating, teasing threaten to bring down the entire house of cards as we wait, half-interested, half-bored, by the twist that is certain to come.
When it does come, it's not that unexpected if you've been paying attention, but neither is it gratuitous or overegged; it just flattens the film somewhat, suggesting that Mr. Shyamalan is playing to his usual gallery without ever putting his whole self into the project, the whole game being so obviously rigged that it can't ever come off as truly inspired. To be sure, there's nothing inherently bad about The Visit; but its careful, maniacal precision suggests a film less propelled by a genuine storytelling desire than by a need to maintain a status.
US, Japan, 2015, 94 minutes
Cast Olivia de Jonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Director and screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan; cinematographer Maryse Alberti; composer Paul Cantelon; designer Naaman Marshall; costumes Amy Westcott; editor Luke Ciarocchi; producers Marc Bienstock, Mr. Shyamalan and Jason Blum, Universal Pictures, Blinding Edge Pictures and Blumhouse Productions in association with Dentsu and Fuji Television Network
Screened September 3rd, 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening