At this point in his career, M. Night Shyamalan has become a walking punchline, with a substantial fall from those who dubbed him the heir apparent to Spielberg with The Sixth Sense over 15 years ago. The new classics of horror cinema have come from independent features like The Babadook and It Follows, as so many studio horror films fall victim to the “found footage” format.
So, of course, M. Night Shyamalan has followed up his wildly expensive flops The Last Airbender and After Earth with a “found footage”-style film.
Technically, The Visit isn’t found footage. Like a number of films categorized this way, The Visit is a film that’s being intentionally shot, and the final “product” is just different from what its “creators” have set out to make. Here, the footage is being shot by Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), as they prepare to visit their grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) has been estranged from her parents for a few decades, but they reach out to her online and ask if they can spend time with their grandchildren. At the kids’ behest, she agrees, but due to an incident that occurred when she last left home, she decides to send the children on their own. Becca is a budding filmmaker, so she decides to make a documentary with the hope of reconciliation between her mother and their Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan).
This being a horror film, it’s obvious that something will go wrong.
It becomes obvious rather quickly that Nana and Pop Pop are both past the point of being able to reasonably look after themselves, let alone each other. The dread that permeates most of the film hinges on these two and the ravages of time. There are mentions of sundowning, while incontinence is treated like a punchline. Yes, a punchline. It’s worth noting that, intentionally or not, Shyamalan has intertwined horror with comedy in this film, and the “comedic” parts when it comes to the grandparents tend to poke fun at the aging process. In keeping with the tropes of a Shyamalan film, The Visit hinges on a “twist.” In this case, though, the “twist” is more of a revelation that, while not necessarily completely obvious, does make the rest of the film feel too small and unimportant.
Why Shyamalan chose to craft this story in the style of a fake documentary, I can’t say. I can only guess that it was a budgetary decision. It turns out to be a weakness for the film; it feels like an attempt on his part to attach himself to a trend, and it strips the film of a lot of potential fright. It’s inconceivable that two characters (particularly young ones) would be capable of getting footage this clear, let alone be able to capture all of the particular moments found in the film. The film would be better served if the cameras weren’t attached to the hands of either young protagonist.
Speaking of the children, Shyamalan fails in one area where he’s normally solid: getting good performances out of young actors. DeJonge makes the most of what she’s given, which sticks her with a film student’s first semester’s worth of vocabulary that she repeats without end, like saying “mise en scene” over and over will make a concept clear. Oxenbould, though, is painful. He served as the lead in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, and he’s the kind of actor who’s appropriate for live-action, kid-friendly Disney films: loud and a bit obnoxious. Here, though, audiences have to put up with his lengthy, skin-crawlingly terrible raps. It’s bad enough the first time, and it’s repeated. Over. And. Over. All the way through the closing credits. And just to make the kids even more out of touch, Shyamalan saddles them both (Oxenbould in particular) with the sort of teenage slang that’s would’ve been outdated if this film came out a few years ago. To their credit, DeJonge and Oxenbould are at least believable as siblings.
The adults, meanwhile, are clearly talented, but they aren’t given characters to play. Hahn basically pops in randomly to say hi, but is kept off-screen for most of the film. McRobbie and (Tony-winner) Dunagan, though, basically play various scenes in order for the characters to react. There’s no consistency between scenes, either, and while to some extent that could be expected for adults with loose grips on reality, Shyamalan could have still given both of these actors a little more to turn them into characters instead of plot devices.
If The Visit was the work of a first-time filmmaker, I do think my reaction to the film might be slightly different. It still wouldn’t be good, but there’s enough about the film that would indicate potential with some refinement. But here, we’re talking about an Oscar-nominated director/writer who at one point in his career showed an immense wealth of potential. My hope going into this film was that by going back to the horror genre, and by getting away from the mammoth budgets of his most recent work, that Shyamalan could create something that would show he still has some talent. Maybe if he had shot this in a more traditional manner (and cut out those raps), that could have come through. And to its credit, The Visit is at least not painfully dull like After Earth. As it exists, though, The Visit isn’t nearly enough of an improvement on Shyamalan’s part to call it a “comeback.” He’ll need to work a lot harder for that.