Silver Screen: The Visit ***1/2
The colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. So in a sense, the definition of insanity is getting excited about a new M. Night Shyamalan movie.
Shyamalan clearly has talent— it’s on display throughout his breakout hit The Sixth Sense and, with increasing fitfulness, followups Unbreakable and Signs. But his reputation took a deserved pummeling during the last decade, when he was responsible for several of the worst films of this or any other millennium.
Call me crazy, but every time a new Shyamalan movie is announced, I feel an anticipatory buzz. Maybe it’s this time, finally, that he sheds his smug, self-aware auteurism and stops associating the notion of singular vision with “didn’t bother to run this by anyone else to see if it made any sense at all.”
The Visit, a small-scale and largely self-produced horror flick, is posed as a return to form. And it is, for all the good and ill that entails.
Shyamalan taps into children’s primal uneasiness with the elderly in this unnerving, increasingly claustrophobic tale, which is so essentially rooted in a single location it could easily work as a stage play. Precocious siblings Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are headed off for a weeklong stay with their grandparents, whom they’ve never met. Their mother (the reliably excellent Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with the folks when she ran off with the man who would make her a single mom twice over. They haven’t spoken since.
The weeklong trip is to serve two functions: for mom to take a much-needed vacation with her new boyfriend, and for budding filmmaker Becca to make a documentary about their mother’s childhood that will reunite the estranged family. Alas, that means The Visit is posited not quite as found-footage horror, but rather a faux documentary that’s been mostly (but not entirely) edited.
Shyamalan runs into trouble right away. The wholly unnecessary documentary conceit is a frequent hindrance with little payoff. The tired format adds little to the experience other than a stray moment or two of point-of-view scares. Shyamalan’s careful composition and fastidious visual style are a big part of his appeal, but here he must downplay them out of fidelity to the gimmick or else have his camera-wielding heroine implausibly achieve them in her small handheld equipment. It’s a disservice to Shyamalan’s technical abilities to suggest that they can be recreated either by happy accident or an inexperienced preteen.
There’s also the thorny problem of the film’s editing, presumably by Becca at a later date. The documentary she sets out to make takes a harrowing turn after the grandparents’ behavior goes from suspicious to terrifying, so why would she in retrospect not contextualize the footage this way rather than present it as a failed attempt to make an entirely different movie? The bugaboo of retrospective logic yet again reveals Shyamalan to be both manipulative and not as deft about it as he seems to think he is.
The biggest problem with Becca’s home movie is Becca herself. DeJonge is a fine young actress, but nobody— tween or teen or even a young Meryl Streep— could sell such tin-eared dialogue. Becca is supposed to be precocious, but Shyamalan writes her, and to a lesser degree her little brother, as hyper-articulate adults trapped in tiny bodies. They casually drop terms like “denouement” and “mise-en-scène” and take turns swapping absurdly mature psychological insights. When Becca frets early on about how little they know about her grandparents, she implores her mother, “We don’t even know their temperaments and predilections!”
Shyamalan doesn’t seem to have any clue how children sound, or for that matter how people sound. He’s an outsider observing the human condition, as alien to dialogue and emotion as the little grey men who invaded the family farmhouse in Signs.
And yet, despite all these flaws— the almost literally unspeakable dialogue, the shoddy logic of the documentary approach, the lazy exposition dumps disguised as direct-to-camera interviews, and yes, even despite the presence of not one but three extended freestyle raps from its youngest cast member— The Visit is startlingly, sometimes viciously effective.
Those excruciating early scenes establishing the plot and characters pay off significantly when the behavior of Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) turns from eccentric to darkly comic to flat-out terrifying. The sweet elderly couple appears to have an unhinged nightlife, which Pop Pop gently explains away as senile Nana’s case of “sundowning,” a kind of dementia that is exacerbated by nightfall.
But how does that account for the mysterious shed where Pop Pop hides out in the afternoons— occasionally with a shotgun pointed at his own chin? And why exactly can’t the children ever go into the basement?
The Visit might be one of the year’s most wildly inconsistent movies, but Shyamalan delivers when it counts. This is a scary movie, after all, and Shyamalan revels in a deeply disturbing blend of suspense, body horror, and psychological extremities. The final twenty minutes are breathlessly intense... well, save for the final, and most superfluous, freestyle rap performance from Oxenbould.
It’s inconsistent, sure, but it’s good, nasty fun. The shabbier elements fade into memory, but images of Dunagan rampaging through a dark house or the unsettling sounds of what turns out to be the world’s most upsetting Yahtzee game linger in the brain for days.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.