The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)
Ask yourself this: if not for The Sixth Sense, would you still care about M. Night Shyamalan? In spite of significant flashes of talent (diminishing with each effort) evident in his four subsequent films – Unbreakable, Signs, The Village and even the atrocious Lady in the Water – nothing the man has done since that third feature of his, in 1999, has come close to its cinematic grandeur and promise of further greatness to come. He has morphed into a running joke – the man whose films always feature a (supposedly) shocking twist of some sort – rather than the auteur of thrilling nightmares he, once, long ago, seemed destined to become. For me, he reached his nadir with After Earth, but, to be fair, that was the first film of his I had seen in years (so others could have been worse). All of this is by way of preamble that my expectations going in to The Visit – Shyamalan’s latest – were extremely low.
It was with very pleasant surprise, then, that I found myself enjoying the opening. Was this the beneficial consequence of my complete lack of faith in the director, or was there something good actually happening on screen? I rubbed my eyes, pinched my arms, and kept watching. And laughing. That’s right: the wannabe master of suspense seemed to be indulging in his funny side. There’s a hint of that in the trailer, but nothing to prepare the viewer that, for much of its duration, The Visit is presented as comedy. With, oh, a twist . . .
So what’s the story? We meet 15-year-old Becca and her 13-year-old brother, Tyler – played by newcomers Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, both, interestingly, Australian – as they are about to leave for a week-long stay with their never-before-seen grandparents, Nana and Pop Pop. It appears that, years ago, their mother – played by the ever-convincing Kathryn Hahn (Rabbi Fein on “Transparent“) – had broken off with her parents over her elopement with the older man whom she married. As the film begins, it seems that said husband has packed his bags and left both wife and kids, and now Becca and Tyler have planned this reconciliation with the grandparents to allow Mom to take a cruise with her new beau. So off they go, leaving Philadelphia, by train, to head west to the tiny hamlet where Mom grew up.
So far, so boring. What makes it not is that Becca is a budding documentary filmmaker working on a personal film about saving her family, and though the trope of found footage is a tired one, by now, this device is what saves the movie. Most of these kinds of movies present the material as if it has been discovered and edited after the events of the story have unfolded, but here we see Becca’s creative process as she shoots and cuts the film “live” (so to speak). She has brought two cameras – one for her and one for Tyler – and so we see her in action as she plans her mise-en-scène. Even better, we hear her self-serious explanations of cinematic language and shot construction as she instructs her brother on how to “create tension in the frame.” Whatever its eventual flaws, the movie is a wonderful primer for young filmmakers on the mechanics of camera placement, and I recommend it to all my students.
The kids are great. DeJonge and Oxenbould not only look like they belong to the same gene pool (and to that of their mother), but share an easy rapport that makes their relationship entirely believable. Shyamalan – witness Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense – clearly has a fine way with young actors, and elicits nuanced performances that combine vulnerability, cockiness and naïveté in equal measure.
Of course, the trip does not go as planned. Becca and Tyler arrive safely in Masonville, PA, and are picked up by Nana and Pop Pop – played by a very good Deanna Dunagan (The Cherokee Word for Water) and Peter McRobbie (the priest in Netflix’s “Daredevil“) – but very soon the plot takes a turn for the creepy and weird. It seems that after 9:30pm the sweet grandparents turn into creatures reminiscent of Japanese horror films. And since Becca and Tyler have, apparently, never taken the lessons of such films to heart – that you should run from scary monsters, rather than towards them – we see this nightly transformation, recorded for the benefit of Becca’s documentary.
Slowly, while still retaining some of its initial humor and charm, the movie begins to sour. As Nana and Pop Pop become stranger and stranger, much is made of the fact that their behavior can be explained by the travails of old age. Funny (perhaps), at first, this notion quickly becomes offensive. Then, once the final (patented) Shyamalan twist comes out, many of the film’s strengths (its lighthearted, easy humor among them) seem out of sync with the very real tragedy at the center of the plot. It’s a disconnect which I cannot entirely accept. It seems that while some of Shyamalan’s fine directing skills are back, there still lurks within him the immature brat who cast himself in the Jesus role in Lady in the Water and, in that same film, made Bob Balaban a film critic who gets eaten by the monster (because, you see, critics had by then turned against Shyamalan and so deserved to die). Despite these significant weaknesses, however, it’s still the best thing the director has done since Signs, which is a noteworthy achievement.