The good news is that The Visit is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film in a decade. The bad news is that it’s still nothing to write home about. The perennial letdown hasn’t directed anything satisfying since 2002’s Signs. As of this writing, that was 13 years ago and with each passing year, the possibility of another gem like The Sixth Sense becomes less and less likely. However The Visit warrants some praise. He’s working with a much lower budget this time around, so the expectation for an “event” movie is gone. This is a much more restrained affair. Additionally, the lighthearted drama frequently veers away from standard horror into outright comedy. The two characteristics are enough to lift this out of the execrable muck from which his work usually descends. However, that still doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable.
Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are two annoyingly precocious teenagers who board a train alone. [Random aside: Oxenbould is the reincarnation of young 80s actor Joshua John Miller (River’s Edge, Near Dark)] Tyler is an enthusiastic rapper. It’s not clear whether this suburban white boy’s rhyming skills are supposed to be humorous or endearing. Grating is a word that comes to mind. Anyway, the two kids are on their way to meeting their grandparents for the very first time. That’s right, they’ve never met. Mom (Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with her parents 15 years prior and so Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) have been estranged from the family for all this time.
Here’s where things go from adequate to unbearable. Becca is an aspiring filmmaker and wants to capture her visit for posterity. The movie we’re watching is her shaky cam footage of everything she views. Her brother Tyler is also given a camera so more than one point of view shot can be rationalized . Naturally M. Night Shyamalan is actually the one responsible for this approach. We get these headache inducing shots that switch back and forth between the two camcorders in an effort to record everything. Even when a device is dropped on the ground, it still conveniently captures the important action. This cinematographic style adds no value to the account other than to create a nuisance. It’s shtick and it doesn’t serve the story.
The Visit has a decent foundation. Kids stay with grandparents that are complete strangers to them. Nana and Pop Pop are seemingly well meaning old people. Their initial impression is warm and pleasant. Then things change when the sun goes down. Their behavior becomes erratic, in essence bizarre. Nana roams the house at night in various states of undress. She vomits on the floor and scratches at the walls. Pop-pop keeps his soiled adult diapers in the woodshed, attacks a stranger on the street and delusionally dresses in formal wear for a nonexistent costume party. Are they suffering from aging mental disorders or is there something even more sinister afoot? The chronicle marks the kids’ vacation time with five title cards, one for each day of their trip. The first person shaky cam perspective only obscures an empty narrative. The gimmick takes what could’ve been a passable time filler into something interminable. Right around the halfway point you’ll realize there’s no plot. That is, of course, until that inevitable “twist” that in no way justifies the long-drawn-out set-up. Apparently M. Night Shyamalan knows no other way to creatively end a story. The movie is a mere 94 minutes. Yet you’ll be begging for that final Friday title card way before it appears.