Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Opens October 11
Is it more surprising that M. Night Shyamalan has been reduced to directing a found-footage horror-thriller for Blumhouse, or that it’s only just happened in 2015? By this point, he’s made more critically reviled disappointments (The Village; Lady in the Water; The Happening; The Last Airbender; After Earth) as confident, engrossing hits (the holy trilogy: Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, which now suggests that maybe the movie stars at hand were doing as much for their director as he did for them), and Jason Blum’s production company has been churning out and picking up low-budge horror efforts since at least Airbender times. For a while, Shyamalan was able to accrue more chances to wow us because his movies, even the critically reviled ones, rarely flopped; really, getting The Happening to $65 million domestic is as impressive, in its way, as getting The Sixth Sense to five times that amount. But the mildly underrated but still somewhat puzzling After Earth somehow ended that streak while starring one of the world’s biggest movie stars, and so here he is in what looks like movie jail, composing shots as if they’re coming from a pair of kids’ camcorders.
But actually, the most surprising thing about The Visit is that it only takes minutes for this formal limitation to stop feeling like humiliating penance. The twist here is that Shyamalan has made his best movie since the first half of The Village, over ten years ago, and arguably his best movie straight through since Signs. To be sure, it’s one of his simplest conceits: precocious, fourteenish Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and mouthy, twelve-ish Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are packed off to visit the grandparents who have been estranged from their mom (Kathryn Hahn) for as long as they can remember. When they arrive, Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) go through plenty of grandparent motions—cooking, quaint walks in the woods—but act a little strange. Then stranger. Then Becca’s in-progress documentary about her family starts to look a little like a Blumhouse production.
But not that much! Putting Shyamalan on a found-footage duty seems designed to stymie the gift that never really left: his ability to compose a frame with striking, patient care. But The Visit isn’t all handheld and night vision; Shyamalan treats the format as a formal challenge, allowing him to use a resting camera to both experiment (sometimes leaving images slightly askew) and hold his shots, a trademark move of this. Even when the camera occasionally goes into surveillance mode, the shots are beautifully lit with outside streams cutting through dark interiors, rather than the standard green fuzz. He captures images as familiar as flickering police lights without downgrading them to lo-fi quasi-reality.
Shyamalan’s technical skill has been relatively consistent, even in the bad years; the real question for even diehard apologists is whether the writer-director has yet learned how to convincingly replicate the vexing patterns of actual human speech in his screenplays, and the short answer is that he has not (see, again, the skill your Bruce Willises or your Mel Gibsons may bring to the table in these situations). But Becca’s sometimes-stilted way of speaking at least has the excuse of would-be precocity; it’s sort of neat to hear a young teenage character allowed to talk about “things that force us to imagine what’s outside the frame” and crack wise about mise-en-scene. Moreover, the sometimes odd dialogue between Becca and Tyler showcases Shyamalan’s often unnoticed (or misinterpreted) sense of humor; The Visit is very much a comic thriller, smartly drawing the line across which laughs and screams swerve into each other. It’s a canny (and long overdue) modulation from a filmmaker whose work has been known to produce unintentional laughs—or laughs that hardly anyone correctly takes for intentional, which is probably just as bad.
The movie’s thin premise does stretch a little thin, and the half-assed assignment of fears for Becca and Tyler to face comes off a little facile, as if Shyamalan was worried his movie was in danger of losing thematic resonance or, worse, “heart.” The heart is already there, in the charming kid performances and the movie’s sincere desire to keep its skeptical horror audience off-balance and intrigued, and the stronger thematic resonance has more to do with the plot’s very protraction—the way the kids aren’t sure how to treat their oddball elders. They’re going by what they can read about aging, or how they might have pictured it, unsure of where “sundowning” (the movie’s original title) ends and full-on dementia begins. The Visit is a small movie—it might well have looked like a weird disappointment after Signs—but within its modest aims it manages to transcend both the found-footage formula and Shyamalan’s decade or so in the woods.