As fun as it is, The Visit can’t really be called a return to form for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. True, like his best work (Signs, The Sixth Sense), this is a thriller, and an effective one. But it’s also an entry in the “found footage” genre, in which everything onscreen consists of images captured by a character’s camera. And so The Visit has an off-the-cuff aesthetic that’s far removed from the formal sense of control that once made Shyamalan such a compelling filmmaker.
Still, let’s not get too picky. If Shyamalan isn’t as assured here as he once was, at least this isn’t another instance of him playing hired gun (After Earth) or – dare we speak of it? – The Happening. The Visit centers on Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould), siblings who are spending a week with their grandparents in rural Pennsylvania. They’ve never met before – the kids’ mother (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from her parents for some 20 years – so the invitation to stay is interpreted as a gesture of reconciliation.
Or was it meant as something else? Not long after the kids arrive, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) start acting odd. She’s a bit too insistent about her baking; he makes far too many trips to the shed. On their first night, Becca sneaks out of the bedroom to get some cookies, only to see Nana projectile vomiting in the hall. The next day, while playing hide and seek with Tyler underneath the front porch, who suddenly comes scurrying around a corner in her nightgown, a bit too eager to catch Becca? Nana again. The cleverness of the scene lies in the fact that “hide and seek” is a game grandparents regularly play with their kids. Shyamalan simply gives it an uneasy edge.
The Visit can’t really be called a return to form.
I suppose disorientation is also the goal with the found footage approach. Becca – a budding documentary filmmaker hoping to create something out of her mother’s fractious family history – always has a camera in hand. So The Visit is comprised of fairly self-conscious camera angles, as well as direct addresses from the two kids. There are moments when this enhances what Becca herself describes as “visual tension” – an uneasiness on our part about what lies outside of the frame – but it’s never quite seamless enough to make you forget the conceit and become immersed in the story itself (as happens with the masterpiece of the genre, The Blair Witch Project).
Of course there is also the possibility that Shyamalan devised this framework to allow The Visit to function as a meta-commentary on his career. Becca is exceptionally precocious (indeed, she’d be downright annoying if Oxenbould’s Tyler, with his extended rapping sequences, wasn’t cornering that market). As she describes the importance of mise en scene, you have to wonder if Shyamalan isn’t puncturing his sudden, early reputation as a master formalist (remember the Spielberg comparisons?) while simultaneously seeking refuge in the “simple” found footage formula.
Either way, The Visit does contain one signature Shyamalan touch: an effective third-act twist. After that surprise, things get darkly comic, then insistently vicious – as if Shyamalan is trying to force his way back into the movie conversation via shock tactics. There’s no need. The Visit generates enough low-key creepiness to make Shyamalan once more worthy of discussion. Welcome back.