Don’t call it a comeback. M. Night Shyamalan has been here for years. And despite one critical and commercial disappointment after another (The Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth), it doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere.
Any other filmmaker with Shyamalan’s decade-long string of semi-disasters would have lost his or her director’s card by now, but not Shyamalan, though the micro-budget of The Visit, his latest film and a return to horror (of sorts), and the trite, stale found footage device he employs suggests that time, not to mention financial backing has finally won out. We – we meaning moviegoers and critics alike – can only hope. Until then, however, we’re left with trying to make sense out of The Visit, less the how it was made, but the why it was made, beyond Shyamalan’s disturbing disgust and repugnance at anyone over the age of sixty and their decaying, gross bodies. Apparently, Shyamalan doesn’t think he’ll have to face the vicissitudes, humiliations, and degradations of old age. Maybe he
knows sometime the audience doesn’t. Maybe he doesn’t.
Temporarily setting aside Shyamalan’s motivation or rationale for making The Visit, his latest film centers on Rebecca Jamison (Olivia De Jonge), a precocious 15-year-old with aspirations of becoming a filmmaker (she constantly name drops film lingo, a sign of worse things to come), and her less bright, less ambitious 13-year-old brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould). Together, they’re sent off for a mid-winter vacation break by their mother,
Paula (Kathryn Hahn), to stay with the grandparents, Doris (Deanna Dunagan) and Jamison (Peter McRobbie), they’ve never met before.
Apparently, Paula and her parents had a falling out almost two decades earlier over Paula’s choice in men (Rebecca and Tyler’s now absent father). They might have been right about the content – or lack thereof – of Paula’s ex-husband, but that hasn’t stopped Paula from holding a serious grudge. That grudge, however, doesn’t stop Paula from agreeing to her parents’ wishes to see their grandparents.
The visit of the title begins awkwardly, with Doris and Jamison, simple country/rural folks from the Rebecca and Tyler’s first sight of them, acting strangely. While they take to Rebecca and Tyler’s instant decision – a decision that feels forced and contrived (because it is) – to be called “Nana” and “Pop Pop” without the slightest hint of disapproval or dissension, their socially stunted behavior suggests all is not well with
Doris and Jamison. Doris insists on cooking constantly while Jamison disappears on occasion, often slipping into a nearby shed. They sternly warn Rebecca and Tyler not to venture into the basement (mold) and not to come out of their room after 9:30 p.m. After Doris gets visibly sick, acting slightly possessed (by demons or mental illness), Rebecca and Tyler’s individual and collective curiosity gets the better of them. Armed with the video cameras Rebecca brought along to document their visit for their mother, they begin an investigation into their grandparents’ behavior, occasionally assuaged by comforting, if temporary, explanations.
For a director who once seemed like an idea factory, Shyamalan has been running low for the better part of a decade. Minus one encounter involving a game of hide-and-seek that quickly goes sideways – probably The Visit’s one and only effect suspense sequence – Shyamalan struggles mightily to overcome a sluggish stagnant second act. Without onscreen text markers to signal the passage of time, The Visit would have almost no forward momentum at all. Instead, Shyamalan plays the theme-and-variations game, essentially repeating the same scenes (e.g., goofy acting grandparents, bizarre nighttime behavior) until he gets to the obligatory shock- and scare-filled finale, a finale even half-asleep moviegoers primed for a patented Shyamalan twist will figure out within the first 15-20 minutes of The Visit’s seemingly endless run-time. It’s not helped by Shyamalan’s over-reliance on nausea-inducing shaky cam (especially during tense scenes) and the usual logic problems associated with the found-footage device (i.e., characters passively recording potentially life-threatening events instead of running or fighting back).
To be fair, Shyamalan does get his share – albeit a small, paltry share – of jump scares from the material, but any half-competent filmmaker with a shallow familiarity with the horror genre and horror tropes would and could do the same. Far more disturbing that Shyamalan’s lack of ideas, however, is the equally shallow subtext (so shallow, it’s actually text): Old people are bizarre, gross, and more likely than not, deranged. Not only
have their served their usefulness to society and their families, they might, just might pose a mortal, existential threat to their (once) loved ones. If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from The Visit – beyond, of course, the lesson for money men (don’t fund anything Shyamalan writes) and moviegoers (stop, please stop paying to see Shyamalan’s films – it’s that old people don’t deserve the respect, care, or compassion from their children or grandchildren, but they should save everyone the trouble and effort and just self-euthanize.