Admittedly the bar has been greatly lowered when approaching any new film from M. Night Shyamalan, quondam wunderkind of cinema, whose SIXTH SENSE left us breathless with delight, and whose subsequent work left us more and more dismayed as the work deteriorated from the thoughtfully disturbing SIGNS, through the kitsch of THE VILLAGE, the silliness of THE HAPPENING, the self-indulgence of THE LADY IN THE WATER, THE LAST AIRBENDER, which left us gasping in shocked disbelief at its grandiose ineptitude, and finally the legendary disaster that was AFTER.EARTH, a film rumored to have been directed more by star Will Smith than by director-for-hire Shyamalan. With THE VISIT, Shyamalan returns, and with some success, to the smaller scale of his first films, including the perfectly wonderful WIDE AWAKE, but with a savage disquietude about the disruption of the nuclear family, and a message about not hanging on to anger that might just be Shyamalan talking to himself about how to deal with the spate of viciously bad reviews into which his career careened.
In an interesting revision of Hansel and Gretel, THE VISIT finds siblings 15-year-old Becca and 13-year-old Tyler ( Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) meeting their long-estranged grandparents ( Deanna Dunigan & Peter McRobbie) by spending a week with them in their rural Pennsylvania home. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) does not accompany them, having walked out of their lives 19 years previously after a mysterious incident that is never discussed, but had something to do with her wanting to elope with an older man. Said older man has since ditched her, and while the kids are away, she will be taking a cruise with her new boyfriend. Becca sees this as a golden opportunity to make a documentary, hence explaining the film’s found-footage format, a tired trope that is surprisingly less irritating that it might have been. Naturally, the remote farmhouse has no cell phone reception, nor wi-fi access, though a landline provides the occasional Skype with mom as she soaks up the sun and tries to restore her self-esteem.
Nana and Pop-pop are the ideal sort of grandparents, meeting the siblings at the train with homemade pretzels and cozy good cheer. They’re nice, but not hip, making much of the kids with lavish attention and homemade chicken pot pie. They’re also eccentric, in the way older people are, as in an early bedtime, a mysterious and foul-smelling shed that’s off limits, and sudden bouts of both whimsy and rage. Each explains away the other’s oddities with a credible medical diagnosis, a sweet smile, and an anxious concern that Nana going commando or Pop-pop dressing for a costume party that will never happen might ruin the kid’s trip. Far from it, at least at first. These kids, who have not come to terms with their father’s desertion four years past, are patient, and even compassionate beyond their tender years. Their angst manifests in other ways. Their alarm grows, though, as their grandparents’ increasingly bizarre behavior becomes more and more difficult to explain away. Of course, there is a twist, but it’s deftly done, with the mechanics of making it work far from strained.
Shyamalan mixes a mordant sort of humor along with the increasing sense of dread, including strangers who stumble into Becca’s viewfinder and reveal themselves to be ex-actors before declaiming Shakespeare. With that tidy distraction, what should and should not be alarming becomes suitably muddled as the story toys with our sympathies about the infirmities of age and our innate instincts for self-preservation. As in WIDE AWAKE and THE SIXTH SENSE, Shyamalan coaxes assured performances from the children of the piece. DeJonge, solemn and ironic, assuming an adult role out of emotional self-defense, and Oxonbould all blue-eyed brashness rapping extemporaneously to cover his insecurities. The buildup to the denouement is well done, whereas the crucial third act, while creepy and at times genuinely terrifying, is more protracted than it should have been for maximum effect, and suffers from the hopeless cliché of an ordinarily smart person doing something incredibly dumb.
THE VISIT may be a minor flick, but it is a triumph for Shyamalan.