You’ve gotta give M. Night Shyamalan credit – here is a director who is bombarded with criticism over any movie in his filmography of the past fifteen years, and yet he still manages to keep his chin up and keep working in spite of it. And yet, after his unfairly reviled 2013 studio effort After Earth, I think Mr. Shyamalan must’ve resigned himself to critical estrangement. It’s the only explanation for his latest thriller The Visit, the cinematic equivalent of a once-promising director throwing up his arms and snapping, “You know what? Fuck it.”
The Visit opens with Loreta (Kathryn Hahn), a mother prepping to drop her two kids off to meet their grandparents for the first time. After conceiving them with an older man and moving out, Loreta has not spoken with her parents in 15 years. So rather than accompanying her children to make sure everything’s cool with the fam like a good mother would, she sends them off and goes on a beach cruise with the hubby. Hooray for modern parenting!
Her children are 15-year-old Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), who speaks as if she’s been studying a little too hard for a film school exam, and the 8-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a wannabe freestyle rapper. No, you are not reading that wrong, and yes, he is white. Painfully, agonizingly white. After the kids are picked up by their Nana and Poppa (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie respectively), who of course live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, they decide to document their voyage to have something to bring back to mom. We watch the entire film shot in this faux-documentary style popularized by The Blair Witch Project, a great model to emulate if you want to suck the suspense right out of your horror movie.
Things take a turn for the weird when the kids find their grandparents exhibiting bizarre behavior around the house. Papa is found with a shotgun in his mouth, and Nana scrapes at the walls while naked and bounds around on all fours with her hair in her face like something out of a better, scarier horror movie. Poppa calls it “sundowning,” a form of dementia that only occurs at nighttime. He advises the kids to lock their door after 9:30 p.m. But is there more to the kids’ grandparents than just an onset of old age?
One thing’s for sure: there is nothing more to this movie than its director’s stylistic suicide.
Since 2002’s Signs, director Shyamalan’s quiet, minimalist approach, often eliciting odd line delivery from his actors, has been a breeding ground for unintentional comedy. For The Visit, Shyamalan has thrown subtlety to the wind and embraced every bit of awkward humor he can derive from this concept, even going out of his way to push a few painfully unfunny gags. One such recurring bit sees Tyler try to improve his rapping by replacing curse words with the names of female pop singers, “Oh, Shania Twain!” he spats after dropping his camera. Ha!
Then there are the grandparents, who do things that grandparents wouldn’t normally do, and this somehow constitutes as either comedy or horror. “Would you mind getting inside the oven, to clean it?” Nana awkwardly intones in a memorable line from the trailer. But by that point, even the film’s shock value is depleted; crazy people doing crazy things can only be surprising for so long. The same can be said of the scares, which are cheap and jump-y in place of real horror. One sequence sees Nana literally leaping into the frame and screaming into the lens, for no real cinematic purpose other than to startle us. You can practically hear M. Night and his new buddy in Insidious producer Jason Blum snickering in the back of the theater as the moment happens, and passes, with little consequence.
There’s of lot of elements like that in The Visit, including an underdeveloped subplot where the kids are suddenly revealed to harbor some repressed anger over their father’s leaving them to move to California, providing ample fodder for a canned message at the end that has no bearing on the film’s actual contents.
So to recap, we have a movie about crazy old people doing crazy old people shit that is neither funny nor scary. It’s just uncomfortable, and amounting to what is essentially an exploitation film about dementia in the elderly.
Balancing comedy and horror is tricky. Few filmmakers can pull it off. Edgar Wright and Drew Goddard elicited laughs and scares aplenty with Shaun of the Dead and Cabin in the Woods, respectively. But The Visit has no such vision, banking on its filmmaker’s failings, rather than his strengths, to serve its dual genres.
Somehow that didn’t stop the audience at my screening from yukking and screaming it up (caught quite a few “oh hell no!”’s at the oven line). But I think history will favor my take on Shyamalan’s big middle-finger to critics: “what the fuck happened to the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable?”
At least The Visit isn’t Tusk. But it’s close. Damn close.