‘The Visit’ Review | Bring Your Own Baggage
Although it would be fair to describe The Visit as “M. Night Shyamalan’s best film in years,” it is not a statement that should come without serious qualifiers. Few directors have fallen into as steep a downward slide as Shyamalan, who burst into widespread popularity with the Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense, stayed there with Unbreakable and Signs, and who hasn’t made a legitimately good movie since. (Although some, like The Happening, arguably fall into the “so bad it’s laughable” category.)
What must be said for The Visit is that although it is a slight film, it does throw into sharp relief what has been missing from M. Night Shyamalan’s movies since he fell out of favor with critics, audiences, and anyone that those two categories might not cover. Ever since The Village, his films have been populated with characters who stemmed from the necessities of his far out plots, and not vice-versa. Mercifully, The Visit works quite the opposite way, with charismatic young actors driving a simple story forward, making even the wonkier moments in Shyamalan’s new film very enjoyable – or at least reasonably palatable – once the movie’s fit finally hits its proverbial shan.
Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould play siblings who are visiting their grandparents for the very first time, and who decide to turn their vacation into a documentary, to help their long-suffering mother (Kathryn Hahn) come to terms with their estrangement. What they discover is that something is a little “off” about Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie). Nana is suffering from a condition called “sundowning,” forcing the kids to stay in their rooms after 9:30pm for their own personal safety, and Pop-Pop is uncomfortably absent-minded, and paranoid that someone – or something – is watching their family.
Audiences have been trained to anticipate a twist from Shyamalan, but The Visit smartly spends most of its time blaming the audience their suspicions. Nana and Pop-Pop are tragic figures, obviously, whose isolation and loneliness and failing health would only make them nightmarish in the eyes of children who don’t understand the pains of growing old. The kids might very well be in danger, but out of neglect more than anything else; it certainly seems clear that Nana and Pop-Pop are in no position to be caring for each other, let alone their grandchildren.
Dunagan and McRobbie dance a delicate dance as the unsettling grandparents, occasionally delving into outright “oldsploitation” but usually imbuing their characters with a fitting melancholy. But it’s DeJonge and Oxenbould who carry The Visit on their capable young shoulders, bickering and joking and trying to sympathize with their grandparents, even at the cost of their own personal safety. You accept, even when The Visit places these kids in genuine, disturbing danger, that the young heroes simply think it’s necessary to keep going, for their mother’s sake, for their grandparents’ sake, and for the sake of their personal, ample baggage.
We really like these kids, and we don’t want to see them suffer, but since it’s a thriller we know that something must inevitably happen to push them to the brink. Shyamalan handles his finale with a combination of intimate trauma and in your face grossness. The Visit is definitely not, by the end, a subtle film, but it is an involving one with a great cast and a creepy mystique. It deals in discomfort and we are discomforted. It luxuriates in its young leads and we appreciate just how luxurious it feels to have engrossing characters in an M. Night Shyamalan film again, and just how much easier it is to accept all of the filmmaker’s typical shenanigans when they actually happen to recognizable human beings, and not just to weird cyphers and ambulatory plot points.
The Visit is not up to the standards of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable or even (most of) Signs, but it is a welcome step in the right direction for Shyamalan. He once again seems energized by humanity and not just a high-concept. He’s made a small film and he’s made it work, on its own modest merits. It’s worth an RSVP.