The Visit is easily M. Night Shyamalan's best recent feature (Anyone out there willing to speak up for The Last Airbender? Which I prefer over James Cameron's latest epic of roughly the same title...but that's more a measure of how much I dislike Cameron's work than of how much I like Shyamalan's). A question still hangs over the movie though: is it any good?
Actually and surprisingly: yes. Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent by their mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) to her estranged parents for a week-long stay; Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) meet the kids at the train station and express undisguised delight--Paula hasn't talked to her parents ever since she eloped with her high school teacher, fifteen years ago. Becca sees this as a hopeful sign, the start of a long gradual process to bring the family together. Along the way Becca is planning a documentary about their experience (she's an aspiring fifteen-year-old filmmaker already fond of pretentious terms like 'visual tension'), allowing her mom a little quality vacation time with her new boyfriend, the latest in a string of unhappy relationships.
That's the setup. Shyamalan avoids any mention of aliens or apocalyptic forces, ghosts or supernatural creatures--this is strictly a domestic drama about two kids gingerly exploring the unknown emotional ground between them and their long-unseen grandparents. There's apparently a lot of ground to explore: Nana and Pop Pop have eccentric rules (curfew is an unbelievable 9:30 p.m.; the old wood shed out back is off-limits, so is the basement down below), they're fond of spoiling their grand kids with homemade treats (scrumptious-looking cookies stuffed with toasted walnuts, among others), and demonstrating odd if not bizarre behavior at night (wall-scratching, naked wandering, the occasional projectile vomiting).
Creepy fun, with older members of the audience no doubt enjoying the proxy vengeance inflicted by their onscreen equivalents on the grandchildren--payback for all the years of rap, low-waist pants, the occasional cruel contemptuous gesture. Younger viewers might appreciate confirmation of their worst fears: that old age leads to degeneration and dementia, maybe even worse.
Filmmaker Becca is young and not untalent--her found footage is more gracefully shot and carefully edited than is standard for the genre--but being fifteen her sympathies inevitably skew younger. Which doesn't make her as judgmental as you might think: she finds Nana and Pop Pop strange and frightening but her fear only adds edge to her hopes that they (when all is said and done) will prove to be decent folk, open to forgiveness, perhaps even love.
Which I suspect is what makes a good or at least memorable Shyamalan movie--not the ingenuity of a plot's twist but the stoutness of the narrative's emotional thread, as seen in a single mother's love for her strange son; a son's love for his strange father; a husband's grief for his dead wife; a (in this picture) grandchild's wish for a reunited family.
Which may be why (skip the rest of this paragraph if you wish to see the movie!) when the surprise twist arrives the picture loses me. So Nana and Pop Pop aren't who they seem to be--so what? They've come to know the kids, who in turn have come to know them; more to the point we've come to know them, and to assume we'd be so ready to toss our sympathies for the pair out a window is presumptuous of Shyamalan, or at least wasteful. Crazy or mentally disturbed folk despite popular misunderstanding don't do things without reason (they often do have one, a compelling coherent one at least from their point of view--the trick being to find out just what, exactly). Up to this point Shyamalan encouraged us to tread the thin line between growing affection and persistent unease; suddenly it's kill or be killed, all ambiguity between kids and adults have vanished, and you miss the knotty emotional textures.
The movie recovers somewhat at the very end, when Shyamalan picks up the thread of family feeling he briefly dropped. Not as good as his very best (the eerily demented Unbreakable) but better than some of his better-known work (the overrated Sixth Sense, the terminally ridiculous Signs). Yes I think this is a return for the director, a brief resuscitation of the moribund found-footage form, and--arguably, arguably--the best recent American horror pic to come out recently. Which isn't saying a lot, but--hey--is saying something.
First published in Businessworld 11.20.15