Becca (Olivia De Jonge), an aspiring filmmaker, and her “ethnically confused”, free-styling brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are going to visit their grandparents for the first time in their lives. Fifteen years ago, their mom (Kathryn Hahn) severed all ties with her parents over their strong disapproval of the boyfriend she’d go on to marry and have two kids with. Now that she’s divorced from the kids’ father, and wants to take a much-needed vacation, Becca and Tyler are on board a train to their mom’s hometown to spend the week with Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie).
It’s a sweet, long overdue reunion for the four of them. All the bakes goods you can eat, board games, hide and seek in the crawlspace – as Pop Pop tells them, “I have not seen your Nana this happy in years.” But then things start to get a little weird, and the craziness only intensifies as the week progresses. Becca assures Tyler that old people tend to act weird and kids just won’t understand it, but is it really just a case of senility run amok or something far more sinister?
Upon receiving word that his nation’s king and three of the king’s sons have been slain in battle, the psalmist, solider and succeeding king David cried, “How the mighty have fallen.” Those immortal words are indeed a fitting description of M. Night Shyamalan, a filmmaker who went from six Oscar nominations for The Sixth Sense (two of which he earned) and being hailed by Time as the “next Steven Spielberg”… to The Happening and The Last Airbender.
If that ain’t a fall from grace, I don’t know what else is.
Shyamalan’s first four films showcased the imagination and creativity he possessed as a filmmaker. While hailing him as the next Spielberg is certainly a stretch for any director with only four hit films, no matter how good they are, as I’ve said before in my review of The Happening, Shyamalan is no one-hit wonder. However, ego has a way of corrupting even the best filmmaking minds, and Shyamalan’s ego would get the best of him with a streak of four consecutive misses from The Lady in the Water (a film most notoriously known for the Sham-Hammer’s messy behind-the-scenes split from Disney), The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth, with Shyamalan essentially being reduced to a “director for hire” by the latter film.
If your name popping up in the trailer for 2010’s Devil causing the theater to erupt in giggles isn’t a red flag concerning your career, then Columbia Pictures going out of their way to bury your name – yes, you, the writerand director – under all of the advertisements for After Earth ’cause they sadly believe slapping “From the writer/director of The Sixth Sense and Signs” will be a deterrent for viewers instead of a draw most definitely is.
Yes, Shyamalan’s no one-hit wonder, but unfortunately, there comes a point after so many misses where you have to wonder if there’s any gas left in the tank.
Which now brings us to The Visit. After serving as After Earth’s hired gun (some reports, though, claim that Will Smith may have had more control over the film), Shyamalan took the money he earned there, got away from the Hollywood machine and put together this small-budget, found-footage film. At the time he thought this wasn’t gonna see the light of day, and even when sending the finished product to Blumhouse Productions head Jason Blum – the man with the golden touch of turning dollar store films into multi-million dollar cash cows – he was still unsure of whether or not Blum would take an interest or not.
Well, an interest was taken and here it now is. Folks, finally, The Visit is the film I’ve been waiting to see from Shyamalan in over a decade.
Admittedly, when I first heard that the Sham-Hammer was releasing a found-footage film, I kinda groaned to myself. He’s now scraping the bottom of the barrel, I thought. But then after thinking about it, I realized this is exactly what he needs to do. Get away from all the self-congratulatory over-ambition of The Lady in the Water, whatever you wanna call The Happening and the bloated, large-scoped misfires like The Last Airbender and After Earth. Go back to your roots, and try to reclaim the mojo you had during your first four films with something simple and small-scale. And what better way to go small-scale than by partnering up with Jason Blum? I’ve said before, not all of Blum’s films are good (this year’s The Gallows and Sinister 2 for example), but there are still some wickedly entertaining flicks under the Blumhouse name, and most importantly, he knows how to turn low-budget films into box office darlings.
Plus, rumor has it that Blum and Shyamalan enjoyed working together so much on this project that they wanna team up again for ShamWow’s next film. A lot of times, that can come off as just blowing sunshine up each others asses, but as professional of a producer as Blum is, and given Shyamalan’s stubborn history in dealing with studios, it’s actually something that in this case shouldn’t be underestimated.
I guess the beating by the humility stick worked, but anyway, I digress.
The Visit isn’t exactly a home run, and that’s fine. It’d be kinda foolish to go in expecting a man coming off four duds in a row to suddenly crank out The Sixth Sense again. It’s a bit of a slow start during the character introductions, but once it finds its footing, it turns into a fun and creepy dark comedy/thriller (don’t worry, unlike The Happening, the humor’s intentional here) and Shyamalan’s shifting between what jolts us and what makes us laugh is handled quite well. This is easily the loosest he’s been in years and it’s definitely apparent that for once in a long time, he’s having fun. Sure, we get the predictable sentimental coda at the end, but we’re thankfully spared a mawkishly preachy beatdown this time.
As much of an overused conceit as the found-footage format is, Shyamalan at least plays within the rules of the gimmick for the most part. Yes, there’s a closing act song that plays in the background and the film is broken up by superimposed date markers, but no cheap jump scare sound effects are added and the perspective stays entirely on Becca and Tyler’s cameras (Kathryn Hahn’s scenes are mostly shown through Skype chats). The conceit isn’t perfect, and there are times as the tension elevates where you wanna scream “Who are you, Emmanuel Lubezki?! DROP THE CAMERA AND RUN!!!!”, but Shyamalan makes the most of it that he can.
Credit should go to this cast for helping sell the tension and the humor, most of which lies in the generational gap between the kids and their grandparents (e.g., misunderstood fears of old age and dementia). Aside from Kathryn Hahn and Ed Oxenbould (who was a bright spot in the moderately funny but overall average Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), I was unfamiliar with most of the cast, but they deliver the laughs and the frights when needed, while also bringing a surprising amount of dramatic weight to their characters. As the bickering siblings, Oxenbould and Olivia De Jonge have a light and easy chemistry together. Oxenbould is just the right amount of goofy without being obnoxious (though his final post-credits rapping wasn’t needed). De Jonge strikes the right emotional notes in conveying her jaded view of her absentee father, a parallel to Hahn’s strained relationship with her parents. Though some of Becca’s pretentious artsy speak feels like contrived teen talk (“No, Tyler, let it swing organically.“), it still carries a whiff of self-awareness from Shyamalan and his own self-importance that I kinda appreciated.
Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan get the more challenging roles as they are required to go down some ridiculous paths. Anyone not as game as they are here could’ve made the characters cringe-worthy, but the two clearly relish the opportunity to flip their switches from sweet and loving to bat-shit and kooky (they’re weird during the day and even weirder at night as Tyler points out), especially Dunagan who shows absolutely no shame throughout her wall-scratching, floor-crawling, projectile-vomiting antics.
Of course, there is a twist ’cause – need I tell you why – this is a Shyamalan film. One of these days, if he really wants to shock us, he’ll make a film sans the twist ending. While it is a twist that had at least one question pop up in the back of my mind as I left the theater (nowhere near as bad as the plot-holes galore twist of The Gallows), it’s still a nice little turn that never overplays its hand. It’s that stripped-down, simplistic approach from the Sham-Hammer to not just the twist, but the overall story that I found refreshingly enjoyable.
‘Cause I swear, if it turned out that it was the plants causing Nana and Pop Pop to go crazy, I would’ve knifed the screen to shreds.
It doesn’t seem like much to say The Visit is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film since The Village; the competition in between the two is so thin it’s non-existent. But thanks to a solid cast and more than enough creepy reminders of what once made Shyamalan great, this is the most fun I’ve had at one of his films in years. No, it’s not on par with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable or Signs – his top three films – and he’s still about one or two more good films away from making a full comeback, but this is a pretty good step back in the right direction.
I give The Visit a B (★★★).