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All the better to KILL you with, my dear: “The Visit”

January 10, 2016

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Ordinarily, a new movie from M. Night Shyamalan is met with the anticipation reserved for a meteor hurtling toward your home, or the digestion of two day-old sushi. Sure, the spectacle of the carnage to come will no doubt be fascinating, but it’s also probably going to hurt a lot. I’ve already gone into detail about the implosion of Shyamalan’s career, and frankly, so has everyone else. In fact, M. Night Shyamalan’s name is about as synonymous with bad movie as Ed Wood’s. That’s why it’s such a pleasant surprise that his latest film, The Visit, is not only an effective little thriller, but also quite a good movie.

The premise of the The Visit is ingeniously simple: Two teenagers, Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are sent to spend a week with the grandparents. It’s an important visit, because they’ve never met their grandparents as they and their mother have been estranged, since her mother (Kathryn Hahn) married their father, whom they didn’t approve of. Now, with that father having abandoned them for another woman, and their mother somewhat adrift, Nana and Pop-pop want to mend fences. Becca, a budding filmmaker, records the visit on a variety of devices and the film takes the form of a found footage thriller.

Upon first meeting, Nana and Pop-pop seem almost to have stepped out of a central casting, with Pop-pop a folksy old man and Nana taking obvious delight in baking and cooking. True, there’s not much to do in their isolated Pennsylvania farm house, but they’re thrilled nonetheless.

The only scary thing here is all the carbs.

The only scary thing here is all the carbs.

Soon, however, it emerges that Nana and Pop-pop have some, well, peculiarities. Pop-pop has incontinence issues he hides out of embarrassment, and Nana suffers from a type of dementia call “sundowning,” which kicks in after dark. Consequently, the kids have strict rules not to come out of their locked rooms after 9:30.

Still, even knowing these things Nana and Pop-pop are off. As the snowbound days crawl by, Nana and Pop-pop’s behavior goes beyond the usual eccentricities of a couple old people living alone and into the bizarre. And then things get really bad.

Really bad.

Really, really bad.

I’m not going to spoil any more, because if you haven’t seen the movie you should. And if you have, there’s no point in hashing over the details of what happens. No, What’s worth looking at is how well-made this movie is, and what a great reminder it is of why Shyamalan broke out in the first place.

It’s hard to remember now how promising a talent Shyamalan seemed to be in 1999—and this is largely due to his own actions. Over the course of more expensive and grandiose and misguided ventures, all that talent got buried under bad ideas and hubris.

Nothing can go wrong with this scenario.

Nothing can go wrong with this scenario.

With The Visit, he limits himself both financially and technically. Ordinarily, found footage is a lazy filmmaking technique. It allows for filmmakers to mask a low budget and lack of talent under poor-quality camera work and frenetic editing. But Shyamalan, by limiting himself, forces himself to rely on his raw filmmaking chops. And they are considerable. He’s always been an excellent director of suspense, and here he forces himself to create that with a single camera and a handful of unknown actors. And create it he does.

The story itself is so ingenious it’s a wonder no one’s run with that ball before. Everyone remembers that weird, dislocated feeling that had when they spent the night at some relative’s house. You observe the strange rituals of their daily life like a stranger, and no matter how hard you try to integrate yourself into them, you always feel like an outsider. With older relatives there is the added discomfort of seeing the effect of time on the human body and mind. As Shyamalan shows in The Visit, it takes only a few off-kilter interactions to push this into the realm of terror.

And the brutality begins.

And the brutality begins.

But undergirding this story of domestic horror is the damage carried by the kids and their mother from the divorce. And here is where memories of The Sixth Sense’s unexpectedly sweet and poignant family story comes back. Becca and Tyler have both been marked by their father’s abandonment, and Shyamalan shows this in subtle, deft touches: Tyler’s germophobia, Becca’s emotional withdrawal. He even gives Becca a throwaway line about how her mother tends to self-sabotage which is paid off in a quick line of dialogue from their mother on a Skype call.

The Visit is a great return to form from a once-promising filmmaker. Here’s hoping everything he resurrected in this movie—his technical skill, his insight into human behavior and relationships—gets put into his future movies.

4 comments

  1. Great review. I did think it was better than his last few but I still don’t think he will ever regain what he had with Sixth Sense and Unbreakable


    • I don’t think he’ll ever regain the level of fame he had, but I hope he has a comeback, because he’s a genuinely talented director. I think he just had too much success to early.


      • I will say it does have a better twist than I thought it would


      • It was a good reveal. Reminded me of a campfire story, along the lines of “the calls are coming from inside the house!”



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