Movie Review: The Visit
By Ben Gruchow
September 15, 2015
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.
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?