After delivering a late-summer hit that was essentially a gentle little character piece about forgiveness wrapped in the jacket of a ghost story, an M. Night Shyamalan credit became synonymous (however briefly) with “twist ending.” This was, I think, unfairly reductive - only four of his now-nine films really actually had twist endings, and none of them were his best work.
Movie Review: The Visit
By Ben Gruchow
September 15, 2015
I’d argue that Shyamalan’s storytelling trademarks involve finding and expressing mordant and very human levity against tense, uncomfortable circumstances. When he does this with relatively universal thematic or narrative material - like using the backdrop of an invasion to play with ideas of coincidence and determinism in Signs - he doesn’t really need to sell us on the concept, and the resulting reactions and byplay serve the characters and story; they secure investment and get the audience’s guard down during a tense moment, and then he hits the viewer with a sight or sound that pivots the mood to fright or pathos.
When he tackles more esoteric or divisive stuff, he still doesn’t take the time to sell us on the world, except this time we need it. We’re thus pulled along by a concept and a cinematic world that we haven’t yet even accepted. At that point, the humor in the face of tension that might have drawn us in instead just feels forced and unnatural and self-involved (and therefore frequently hysterical). Let it be known, then, that Shyamalan is at his best as a storyteller when he’s riffing on a concept that we already generally see the same way he does.
Shyamalan hits on a nearly-bulletproof version of this concept with The Visit. As a culture, we regard old age with general tension and discomfort to begin with, and this extrapolates (whether we really want it to or not) to old people. It’s also not like Hollywood hasn’t exploited this for years already - several movies within the same genre have done so in the last couple of years, with the most well-known of them probably being the Insidious franchise.
It’s a whopper of a hook, probably the easiest setup for a mordant little campfire tale that you could want. And make no mistake, this movie is a campfire tale, as simple and direct in its goals and spirit as it needs to be and no more. In summarizing the story and setting, it feels right to appropriate Joss Whedon’s excellent little pitch for 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods: Two kids go to visit their mother’s estranged grandparents for the first time, and bad things happen.
There are all sorts of little complications to the plot - the terms of the mother’s estrangement, the personalities of the kids (Rebecca and Tyler, played by relative newcomers Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) - but they’re not germane to the core of the story, which plays out as both more and less than it could have. This movie hits on the distrustful aspects of age in a semi-novel way for a horror movie in September: how much of what Rebecca and Tyler are hearing, by way of explanation for strange events, is filtered through the perception of a person who may be losing or have lost their grip on reality? And how much of that filtration is innocuous?
It’s a good angle, even if the proceedings don’t really pretend to do more than nudge the potential implications. And the movie has a great twist; it precariously tap dances on the edge of being ridiculous, but it achieves the goal of being gobsmackingly obvious after the fact while still holding together before the fact, and it’s handled well during the fact. It also arrives right at the start of the third act rather than in the middle of the climax or during the falling action, so we’ve got time to process it and adjust to the new circumstances before the final set piece kicks in. It doesn’t cheat.
The whole movie is like that tap dance; it keeps flirting with campiness and stupidity and pulling itself back from the brink at the last second, and it usually does this by going a little bit further than we expect, but it earns what it gets. A character will say or do something that seems primed for unintentional humor, and then they’ll add the right accent or line or action onto that moment to subtly but unmistakably push it from silliness to discomfort.
There’s a game of hide-and-seek in the crawlspace under Grandma and Grandpa’s house in broad daylight that had the audience chuckling at its conclusion - but the set piece itself is pretty creepy (the revealing shot that pivots the scene’s tone is perfect in timing and composition) and it’s easier to imagine that chuckling coming from a place of tension regarding the character’s plight - which, as stated, revolves around age - than it is from good humor in and of itself.
In this moment and others like it, the movie is clever in how it utilizes one of Shyamalan’s weaknesses (his dialogue, generally stilted and overliteralized and dependent on the actor’s performance in order to work) to its advantage. With the found-footage approach, everyone in the movie is aware that there’s a camera on them (I grow tired of found-footage movies in general, but I grow especially tired of those where the characters don’t seem to ever notice the camera in the room), and so everyone’s stilted and self-conscious and a little overbaked in their deliveries anyway. The conceit here is that Rebecca is making a documentary about her mother’s childhood, and she’s ostentatious about alluding to theme and irony within the material that she’s shooting; I liked the way the movie seems to use the repetitive instances of people playing for the camera to point us toward its secret, without being obvious about it.
We bounce back and forth between moments of goofiness and moments of tension, and then the twist happens and the final act begins, and The Visit abandons all pretense of comedy and slight discomfort. The finale is indeed horrific, playing out across multiple locations, with two separate parties. It plays better than it sounds, and on its own it’s probably the most effective sustained bit of tension and horror Shyamalan’s produced since the invasion sequence in Signs (of course, nothing he’s made since Signs has really been tense or horrific at all, but…again, progress).
If I’ve made this review sound like the movie is a big success, it’s not. There are rough patches with the editing and camerawork littered everywhere; the found-footage approach is well-conceived relative to a disaster like July’s The Gallows - but it’s nowhere near flawless, and there are still plentiful moments where a character is clearly only holding the camera so that there can be a scene at all.
Character moments stumble about as often as they succeed; Tyler has a subplot about being an amateur rapper that goes nowhere, and is responsible for a rancid little scene set on a train encompassing just about everything wrong with Shyamalan’s instincts as far as how people behave. There’s a deeper and more resonant horror film about age and perception that develops and invests us in Grandma and Grandpa more (a late interview scene with Grandma, played with unforced conviction by Deanna Dunagan, is unexpectedly poignant and effective) that feels overlooked in favor of jump scares and camerawork.
I’d rank it an easy fourth among his filmography, which is easier than it sounds when five out of the nine entries involved are varying degrees of awful. I can’t deny The Visit its successes, though: it’s playfully tense, the characters are more informal and lived-in than in any Shyamalan film in years, the cinematic technique works, and it builds a convincing and unsettling world. It could have been much worse.