It turns out the secret to M. Night Shyamalan making a good movie was dropping all the portentous, pretentious bullshit he usually packs into his films and instead going for a light, almost silly feel not unlike a classic Goosebumps story. The Visit is fun, first and foremost, with a lot of scares and laughs along the way to a climax that gets just nasty enough to qualify it as a real horror movie.
Shyamalan’s career has been weird, and I have often felt like a confused bystander watching other people bend over backwards to love his early films. I think The Sixth Sense is really very, very good, but that film’s somber tone didn’t belong in Unbreakable, a movie I still think is a terrible slog of joyless nonsense. Signs made me feel crazy - everybody else loved this movie? I didn’t get it. The Village was a relief, as it seemed like the whole world and I finally saw eye to eye. With The Lady In The Water I was out of step again as I found that film's bad self-pitying to be amazing, and when I saw The Happening I knew I was in the presence of honest-to-God, no bullshit bad movie greatness. The Happening is the kind of psychotically bad movie that can only come from a good filmmaker.
What The Visit does is it takes the accidental ridiculousness of those last two films and owns it, and it turns out that Shyamalan is really good at light comedy and knowing goofiness. He’s made a movie that does come sideways at a couple of issues but doesn’t ever take itself all that seriously. Shyamalan’s craft has never been in question - he is a good filmmaker - it’s just his approach and his tone and his storytelling choices have been wildly off. Now, finally, his craft and his sensibilities are perfectly in tune and the result is a film that’s going to become a huge favorite for a lot of younger viewers.
The Visit is found footage-y; young Becca is a precocious brainiac who is making a documentary about her mother, and more specifically about her mother’s relationship with her parents, who she hasn’t seen in fifteen years. Those parents have found Becca’s mom on Facebook and a small detente has been reached - Becca and her brother, Tyler, will go spend a week with the grandparents they have never known.
As Becca films everything that happens (with the occasional assist from Tyler) it slowly becomes clear that things are weird with Nana and Pop Pop. He’s sometimes confused, and is hiding something in a locked shed. Meanwhile Nana prowls the halls late at night, vomiting and slamming doors and scratching the walls. As Becca tries to get to the heart of the argument that sundered the family, Tyler begins to realize that something way, way weird is happening around them.
The Visit plays with a lot of standard childhood fears, especially fears of old people and being away from home. When you’re a kid old people are just bizarre - they smell bad, they act in ways that can be confusing or frightening, they can go from being laughable to kind of Hand of God terrifying at a moment’s notice. There’s a lot of natural fear there, especially for kids who aren’t raised around older people. On top of that The Visit captures that simultaneous feeling of being scared and bored when you’re shipped off to the odd relative’s house; you’re trapped in a place that sucks without your usual toys and you’re also dealing with an alien environment that is vaguely threatening and often spooky in musty and dusty ways.
That’s where The Visit really scores - Shyamalan truly understands and communicates these childhood fears. That’s why this movie is going to hit huge with younger viewers; it’s speaking directly to their experience. That it does so with fun scares and child protagonists really seals the deal.
Your experience (I’m assuming you’re not a kid) is going to depend on how you react to the lead kids. Or more specifically to Tyler, played by Ed Oxenbould. A scrawny dweeb with impossibly high self-esteem, Tyler is a white boy rapper who ends all his freestyles with “HO!” and who decides to swear less by exclaiming the names of female pop stars rather than curse words. I loved Tyler - he’s funny and dopey and Oxenbould is a fountain of charm in a way that kid actors from the 70s were. He’s sort of preternaturally good but doesn’t come across like a stage managed robot kid. Tyler’s relationship with Becca is real and sweet, and the fact that he honestly loves his sister goes a long way towards making his sub-Vanilla Ice persona bearable (which doesn’t mean he’s always nice to her - there’s real, honest cruelty between the siblings at times… just like in real life).
Oliva DeJonge is Becca, and I was stunned to learn she’s an Aussie. Tasked with delivering a lot of clunky nerd dialogue DeJonge makes it all seem effortless - and American! By having her be a kind of snobby film nerd Shyamalan allows his faux doc the freedom to look nice and to have good compositions. It’s a brilliant move, and DeJonge sells it all, and sells Becca as a full and complete smart girl riddled with her own unique neuroses.
Nana and Pop Pop are played by Deanna Donagan and Peter McRobbie, each given surprisingly difficult roles. The two grandparents are ever-changing, perfectly lucid and wonderful in one scene and confused and scary in the next, and that means the two don’t have a strong anchor point to start with. Of course part of this movie is about the scariness of old people losing their shit (quite literally, in this case) and so those shifts from lucid to confused are a major part of what’s happening. I was amazed at Donagan in particular, who often comes across like a totally different person depending on Nana’s mental state at any given moment. Both actors really go for it, playing the roles to the hilt.
There is a ‘twist’ in the movie, but it’s actually a reveal, and it’s one you’re waiting for the whole time. It’s clear that something is wrong with Nana and Pop Pop, the question is what exactly. It ends up being more of a Tales from the Crypt ending than a full Twilight Zone mindfuck, and I like that a lot. The clues are all there, and Shyamalan plays completely fair while also not exactly tipping his hand too much.
I had such a great time with The Visit. It’s loose in the right ways, in ways that don’t interfere with the construction or the building of tension. It’s a film filled with great moments of tension and remarkably few cheap jump scares. Shyamalan has found a tone that works like magic, a tone that allows him to go from murder to a joke in a heartbeat without invalidating either. And it’s a movie where an adult diaper dripping with human shit has a key moment to play in the story. That alone makes The Visit worth seeing, but thankfully the film has a lot more to offer than just feces.