Written and Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, and Deanna Dunagan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Mom, there's something wrong with Nana and Pop Pop..."
When filmmakers begin to buy into their own cult, the results begin to trend towards self-parody (see: Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, & Frank Miller). Even worse, their works become boring as they trot out safe, predictable variations on well-worn themes (somehow, even when Kevin Smith steps out of his comfort zone, this still happens). While the former is certainly true of M. Night Shyamalan, I don’t know that you could argue the latter, as he’s a director who has disappeared so spectacularly into his own asshole that it’s commanded attention.
Say what you want about the likes of Lady in the Water or The Happening, but “boring” probably isn’t among the descriptors—these are the sort of legitimately bad movies that must be experienced because you never believe for a second that their director isn’t totally, completely sincere about whatever it is he’s trying to do (scientists especially have not been able to determine this for The Happening). They’re instances of a guy not giving much of a fuck about really giving all the fucks, if that makes any sense.
In fact, it’s this sort of dopey, misguided sincerity that’s sunk Shyamalan for the past decade. You sense that he never quite grasped just how much fun audiences had with his early successes. The Sixth Sense, for all its somberness, is a killer little ghost story, while Unbreakable often feels like a comic book movie in denial. After wandering around in the blockbuster, big-budget wilderness (something he is an ill fit for), Shyamalan has attempted to return to his roots with The Visit, a film where he leaves little doubt that he’s finally back in on his own joke. For the first time since Signs, he’s recognized the playfulness of his storytelling and finally embraced it again. Finally, there’s a sense that Shyamalan has found a way to laugh with us when we’ve spent the past ten years laughing at him.
In returning to form, he hitches his wagon to the form du jour in the found footage aesthetic, though he’s at least bothered to provide a believable frame: 15-year-old Rebecca Jamison (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their maternal grandparents due to their mother’s (Kathryn Hahn) falling out with them as a teenager. For the first time in fifteen years, the grandparents have reached out, and the children want to meet their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie). Aspiring documentarian Rebecca plans to film their week-long stay with the elderly couple, who prove to be interesting subjects since they’re kookier than your average set of grandparents.
At first glance, The Visit feels like someone putting Shyamalan’s return narrative up on a tee: here’s a director trying to recapture former glory by throwing in his lot with current genre powerhouse Jason Blum, whose particular brand of horror has especially clicked with auteurist sensibilities (for all my hand-wringing over boilerplate junk like The Lazarus Effect and The Gallows, we should never forget that Blum has provided a platform for the likes of James Wan, Rob Zombie, Scott Derrickson, and Barry Levinson). You wonder how tempting it may have been for everyone involved to allow The Visit to roll off the Blumhouse assembly line, with Shyamalan himself retreating to relative anonymity as a mercenary shooter looking to stroll back into his own ghost town with ease. Make no mistake, though: The Visit carries the unmistakable, offbeat fingerprints of its director, who comes at an already screwy premise with a wry, sideways sense of humor.
As important as that sense of humor is, however, it’s arguably even more important that it doesn’t overwhelm The Visit and allow it to veer wildly off the rails and leave its well-crafted horror to burn in the wreckage. Shyamalan is primarily invested in unnerving the audience by stringing them along with a taut mystery centered on a simple question: “what’s the matter with Nana and Pop-Pop?” If that sounds like the title of a psycho-biddy movie, then rest assured that The Visit follows in the footsteps of that legacy, only it involves a pair of obviously disturbed septuagenarians to double the insanity. Shyamalan playfully builds suspense surrounding the couple by leaving viewers to wonder if Nana and Pop-Pop are just eccentric by normal elderly standards or if something more sinister is afoot. When Nana asks Rebecca to climb into the oven and clean it, it’s odd—but how evil can it really be considering Nana bakes a mean batch of cookies?
Soon, however, this oddness becomes more pronounced: Nana wanders the house at night, scratching wildly at the walls. Pop-Pop seems to be hiding something mysterious in the barn. The children are warned to never enter the basement. Both grandparents have bouts of forgetfulness that (again) feel normal until they take on a violent tenor. Staying with these two becomes an increasingly uncomfortable proposition, perhaps not unlike your own visits with relatives (elderly or otherwise). Much of The Visit’s effectiveness is rooted in this child-like sense of alienation, particularly since it’s told from that perspective: imagine your most unsettling experience of staying in a strange place with strange people as a child and amplify it by a significant factor that involves butcher knives and intense games of Yahtzee.
Before he became absorbed by self-seriousness, Shyamalan effortlessly blended childhood curiosity and terror (there’s a reason he was once hailed as the next Spielberg, after all), and he’s finally recaptured it with The Visit. It’s a very specific feeling, one that thrives on forbidden thrills as much as it does actual scares, and there’s one moment in the film that truly encapsulates it: when the bumps in the night finally become too much for Rebecca and Tyler, the two are dead set on investigating it…as soon as they can work up the nerve to open the door. Tyler keeps insisting that he will several times before he actually does it, which is a great, genuine moment that summarizes The Visit, a film full of creepy cellars, barns, basements, and hallways that you can’t help but want to peek into even though you’re not really sure you want to see what’s lurking around the corner.
In a way, you almost feel like Shyamalan is toying with an audience who expects him to eventually lose control. Nearly every effective element is shadowed by a troubling doppelganger: sure, the desolate, rural Pennsylvania surroundings are spooky and evocative, but there’s also extended moments where a 13-year-old raps the most awful rhymes imaginable. Sure, Dunagan and McRobbie are delightfully off-center as Nana and Pop-Pop, both of whom range from harmlessly kooky to frighteningly maniacal, but Rebecca almost feels too calculated (if not overly precious) as she recites some of Shyamalan’s ridiculous dialogue. Sure, Shyamalan’s command of the found footage aesthetic is undeniable (as always, he knows just how unsettling a long shot can be), but has his technical proficiency ever really been in doubt?
The Visit is unconventionally suspenseful in that much of it is so good that you don’t want Shyamalan to blow it. You feel compelled to watch it through your fingers not because the on-screen visuals are too queasy but because you just know Shyamalan is heading down a path that will either see him stray further into the wilderness or emerge triumphantly. With Shyamalan, there’s very little middle ground, and that proves to be true of The Visit, especially once he really leans into the nuttiness with a reveal (of course there’s one) that doesn’t turn the film on its head so much as it just nudges it firmly into that position. It’s a bit crooked from the start, after all.
All of this is to say that Shyamalan doesn’t blow it with The Visit, even if you might feel like he’s about to even up until the final minute, at which point it’s careened through outlandish outbursts and various tones—it’s scary, goofy, funny, gross, and unexpectedly heartwarming for a film whose climatic scene involves an old man literally shoving his incontinence in a kid’s face. If you had said the same thing about a Shyamalan movie before seeing The Visit, I would have pegged it as the director’s latest exercise in unintentional comedy; this time, however, it’s very much intended and meshes well with Shyamalan’s other good intentions.
After the thudding mediocrity of After Earth, I insisted that I would rather put up with his well-intentioned misfires rather than “disposable competence,” so imagine how thrilled I must be that The Visit actually reclaims some of his former glory. Let’s maybe install a rule going forward that no movie can feature this much rapping by a 13-year-old white boy, though.
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