An Old Dog Learns New Tricks: The Visit Review

When it comes to the filmography of M. Night Shyamalan, nearly everyone pitches their tent on one of two extremes. Option one: Shyamalan is a visual stylist who heightens B-movie concepts into tightly wound, emotionally satisfying genre flicks. Sure, he can prize narrative trickery (i.e. “twists”), overwrought writing, and stylized acting that threaten to derail his high concept mysteries. This leads to option two: Shyamalan is an unmitigated hack, a cinematic wolf in sheep’s clothing whose attempts to elevate said B-movie concepts into droll pretension. For detractors, his last few films have been little more than exercises in shining their critical toolboxes. Many of his fans have either doubled down on defending him or just retreated into his past successes as enough to constitute devotion. Hyperbolic estimations of his films are certainly not in short supply.

As for me, I have remained an agnostic observer, with as many of his films giving me pleasure as much as they have pause. The Sixth Sense (1999), his breakout hit, was a very well-crafted supernatural thriller that’s iconic twist unfortunately was spoiled for me years before I even saw it. I found Unbreakable (2000) to be a dull, lifeless deconstruction of superheroes that failed to understand what was heroic about them. For my money, Signs (2002) has been his most complete film that marries atmosphere and character motivation to an effectively chilling effect. The Village (2004) was a film I liked a lot the first time I saw it but I grow weary that a revisit may prove disappointing. The outright idiotic logic of Lady in the Water (2006) would be insulting if it were not so laughable. I have yet to endure The Happening (2008), but if its legendary YouTube clips are any estimation of its quality, it looks like yet another misfire.[1] Soulless cash grabs like The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) only warrant mention in the arc of his career as an abandonment of a voice, as problematic as it could be, that was as signature as anything being produced by Hollywood.

I apologize for that lengthy summation of Shyamalan’s career, as the subject of this review is ultimately his latest horror film, The Visit. However, any frank discussion of the divisive director’s latest film relies on the baggage the viewer carries into the theater. Again, as a Shyamalan outsider, I thought that a return to a stripped down, simplified genre film would be a good move that had the capacity to get the director back on track. Thankfully, The Visit does just that.  The story here concerns two teenagers visiting their grandparents that they have never met due to their mother’s estrangement from them. Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) is an aspiring filmmaker who sees this trip as an opportunity to make a documentary about the experience. As you can expect, all is not as it seems as the week goes on, with time revealing the elderly couple to be the definitive grandparents from Hell.

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The Visit employs a found footage aesthetic that has been very in vogue for the genre for the last decade.[2] In this entry, Shyamalan fashions a worthy enough excuse for the artificial ploy of authenticity. Rebecca’s commitment to capturing the reflections and reactions of all the family members grants the film a level of intimacy that many found footage movies strive for but rarely achieve. Though the footage looks too rich for these teenage documentarians to capture, complaining about the quality of The Visit’s mise en scène[3] seems like an idiotic digression. Shyamalan has always been a visual director who can make the mundane and the commonplace eerie. This simplistic premise allows him to put a level of trust in his actors that seemed absent from his failures that prized a stylized level of mania rather than more natural performances.

On this front, the young actors are serviceable. But if you are looking for the next Haley Joel Osment, your time would be better served elsewhere. The best thing going for the pair is their genuine affection for one another. A lot of movies take the sibling relationship as an inherently antagonistic one. While Rebecca and Tyler certainly make occasional digs at one another’s expense, the bond the duo share is always apparent. As the clutches of the grandparent’s grow tighter and tighter, brother and sister huddle closer and closer together to draw strength from the other. Sure, there are times the pair can become a bit grating. The worst is Rebecca’s cliché understanding of film that will remind Shyamalan haters of his less than subtle attempts to draw attention to the artifice of cinema and storytelling. Additionally, Tyler’s passion for free style rapping will roll eyes in spades. But unlike many protagonists in Shyamalan films[4], the two feel like real, breathing people. Rebecca and Tyler, as analogues for teenagers go, are kids you still care about and want to succeed, even if they annoy you at times.

Unsurprisingly, the meatier roles go to grandparents John (Peter McRobbie) and Doris (Deanna Dunagan). It is not too often that people of this age get roles of such prominence, let alone range, in a movie that will be primarily marketed for younger audiences. The two manage to go between moments of warmth and violence with an uncanny sense of delusion. A lack of familiarity we have with McRobbie and Dunagan adds a layer of mystery to the older actor’s presences.[5] Dunagan in particular gets an interview scene where an unambiguously happy demeanor turns into a horrifyingly unpredictable progression of psychosis. Again, like the teenagers, this emotional foundation grounds a film that is essentially a haunted house story where the ghosts’ intentions are never entirely apparent.

Much of The Visit relies going into spoiler territory, a familiar end of the pool for a director who puts J.J. Abram’s reliance on the “mystery box” to shame.[6] However, I can safely report that Shyamalan has finally earned his way out of Hollywood’s penalty box. He has seemed to learn the appeal of his aesthetic, as well the limits of it. The movie’s ability to simply be “good” may make positive estimations of it verge on exaggeration. Having said that, The Visit is a light and entertaining work that shows this director has the capacity to age nicely, even if his latest film’s villains fail to.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

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[1] Exhibit A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhmEo-46vUQ. Exhibit B: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Rq-7zEVuwI. Please consult the rest of YouTube for further evidence.

[2] This subgenre was kicked off in 1999 with the release of The Blair Witch Project. Ironically, the second biggest film of 1999 (behind The Phantom Menace) was The Sixth Sense. It is quite fascinating that Shyamalan is making a comeback in a genre essentially birthed the same year as his own career. Just a thought.

[3] A phrase dropped a surprising number of times.

[4] Or horror films in general for that matter.

[5] McRobbie is a character actor who pops up in the occasional Spielberg film, Netflix’s Daredevil, etc. Dunagan has a light film and television career, being much more active in the world of theatre.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpjVgF5JDq8.

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