It’s disheartening to see how far M. Night Shyamalan has fallen from grace in the public’s eyes. I, for one, am a great admirer of his work. Notice that I use the present-tense.
Ever since The Sixth Sense, I’ve admired his work for one thing – the way he explores the human condition and the emotional gravitas with which he anchors this. The thing about Shyamalan, when his name is mentioned, people tend to think “twist” and “horror” and “fantasy.” As far as genre goes, it’s not wrong to lump him together with, say, Guillermo del Toro (although I think del Toro is an incredibly mediocre filmmaker whose fanboy obsessions too often overtake his ambitions). But in reality, Shyamalan is much more than just about ghosts and monsters and fantastical tales with delicious twists.
But more on that later.
After hearing much good about Shyamalan’s latest, The Visit, I finally caught it at an evening screening a couple of weeks ago. It’s been called his “comeback film.” And for good reason, too. One is that he returns to the horror-with-a-twist genre that made him famous. Secondly, he went off-course so much with The Last Airbender, and put up with so much ridicule after The Happening, that many see this as his return to form.
Truthfully, I don’t think it is so much a return-to-form as it is Shyamalan toying with familiar ground. It’s such a small film with a small, simple idea at its core that it doesn’t feel like any big splash, just a wade in the old pool. And it’s a step in the right direction for him, not trying too hard to make a big mark, or to try and top what he had done before. It’s an enjoyable film, but it won’t win him back any old fans. In fact, using a tried and true formula like the found-footage subgenre but not adding much to it doesn’t make The Visit much of a surprise. It all feels like a mere exercise.
But if, like me, you are aware of what Shyamalan really tries to do with every film, you’d know that he is indeed back at doing what he does best. He brings a Hitchcockian sensibility to horror – it’s not the horror element or the threat that drives our fears, but the disintegrating relationships between people caught in a frightening situation, when the protagonist is left more and more alone in an escalating crisis.
But most of all, in almost all of Shyamalan’s films, is the breakdown of communication between male and female. That element is ever present in all of his work.
In The Sixth Sense, Cole could not communicate with his mother about seeing dead people, and Dr Crowe could not reach out to his wife (well, simply because he was dead!). In Unbreakable (surely one of the finest superhero movies ever made), David was estranged from his wife, even though they still lived in the same house. In The Happening, Elliot and Alma’s marriage is strained at best, and communication in this film is more literally portrayed through the use of modern devices like mobile phones.
It is only when the men are able to accept who they are do they finally overcome the barrier and resume the connection with the women in their lives. In the case of The Happening, the couple only manages to really get through to each other when they communicate using the most primitive method – talking through a hole in a wall.
In The Visit, interestingly enough, Shyamalan switches gears slightly. This time, it’s the generation gap that is the barrier, the relationship failures between parent and child, and grandparents and grandchildren.
The children, Becca and Tyler, are sent to visit their grandparents whom they’ve never met, and whom their mother has not spoken to in many years because of a misunderstanding they had when she was younger. This situation has been explored before in Signs, when Shyamalan first expanded his theme to encompass an entire family (later, further expanded to include an entire village).
Becca and Tyler see their grandparents acting very strangely, especially at night. Mother thinks it’s just old age, incontinence and dementia. But the situation becomes more and more dangerous, and weird. Until we find out the truth about their grandparents. Yes, the Big Shyamalan Twist.
And what Shyamalan also achieves in this film, unlike the others, is a perfect balance between comedy (though which doesn’t always work) and horror. Even the Twist will evoke some chuckles, because it’s so silly and simple that you’ll laugh at yourself for not guessing it.
But at the heart of all Shyamalan’s films is also the theme of forgiveness, of letting go and being at peace with yourself and with the world. And this is the big one for The Visit, the emotional core, the mechanism that pulls at the heartstrings. It’s the centre of Shyamalan’s talent – he is at his best when dealing with the emotional connections between all his characters, the Moment when they let it all pour out. Recall the heartfelt scene in the car between Cole and his mother, talking about his grandmother. Or the silent, wordless scene at breakfast when David’s son is finally shown that his father is really a superhero.
It’s that kind of powerful poignancy that is Shyamalan’s real strength, not his ability to conjure twists, or his knack for creating a dark atmosphere. The Sixth Sense, his tour de force, and the film that really launched his career, is in a way, also his curse. People have come to expect a certain kind of film from him, almost always forgetting or overlooking the fact that it’s his characters, the emotions and the very real, very human relationships that he creates, that make us connect so well with his work.
Some have claimed that if you remove the twist from The Sixth Sense, there wouldn’t be much of a film left. But I strongly disagree. The real clincher of an ending comes right before the twist, when Cole reveals to his mother what is really ailing him. That’s the real punch right there, not the sucker punch of the twist.
Shyamalan has the talent for real drama, more than for horror or plot surprises. I really hope he makes a drama next, which will prove once and for all, that he is more than just a fantasy storyteller.