“After fifteen years of trying, M. Night Shyamalan may finally have to consider the possibility that he’s incapable of making a good movie, let alone a great one.” These words began my review of Shyamalan’s 2013 effort, After Earth, and unfortunately, they still hold true for his 2015 offering, The Visit – although the years have obviously increased from fifteen to seventeen. The film is, paradoxically, like everything and nothing he has done before.
On the one hand, he continues his unsuccessful trend of juxtaposing a harrowing sequence of events with an entirely unrelated theme or moral, and he starts the final act with an outrageous, implausible plot twist. On the other hand, he takes an entirely different stylistic approach, going for more visceral funhouse-type thrills and shooting it as a found-footage mockumentary.
This is also the first of Shyamalan’s films that seems intentionally designed to be unpleasant – not in an exciting, entertaining, or insightful way, but in a way that’s aggressive and noxious. Sitting through the second half, I found I didn’t much enjoy watching what specific characters were doing, and I kept asking myself when it would all finally be over. Leaving the theater, I felt icky and somewhat depressed. Many great films are known for making audiences uncomfortable, be it through violence, sex, or examinations of character and personality. However, that’s only when there’s a genuine narrative purpose for it. A film that’s nasty simply for the sake of being nasty translates as hostility and resentment on the part of the filmmakers, as if they really did want to punish audiences for wanting to see the movie in the first place.
The film is structured as a home movie shot by a young teenage girl named Rebecca (Olivia De Jonge), an aspiring documentary filmmaker with lines of dialogue that consist significantly of inflated, borderline pretentious movie-making words and phrases. Her project involves trying to make sense of the fifteen-year estrangement between her mother (Kathryn Hahn) and her mother’s parents, which in turn might help to explain why her own father abandoned the family years earlier. Against their mother’s wishes, Rebecca and her freestyle-rapping kid brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), have decided that they want to meet their grandparents. Rebecca especially; she wants to interview them for her documentary. On their own, the kids make the 200-plus-mile journey to their grandparents’ small country town by train. Their mother, meanwhile, is in a relationship with a new man and will soon be going on a cruise with him.
As soon as they get off the train, Becca and Tyler encounter an elderly couple (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), who confirm that they are their grandparents. They seem nice enough – although, after taking the kids to their isolated farmhouse, they do start to exhibit some strange behaviors. Why, for example, does the grandmother eventually hide in the crawlspace under the house and threateningly chase after Becca as she holds the camera? Why does she wander aimlessly in the house, sometimes vomiting, sometimes clawing at doors, sometimes babbling incoherently? How come the woman who comes over for a visit is never seen leaving? And what’s with the rule that the kids should never, ever leave their rooms after 9:30 pm?
There’s a lot more, but of course I’m obligated to not reveal any of it. And because I’ve already expressed my displeasure with the twist, let us get off the plot altogether and instead focus on the film’s pervasive unpleasantness, which I believe is in part due to wild shifts in tone; Shyamalan freely and often shifts from silly and lighthearted to serious and frightening, which creates such cognitive dissonance that it’s incredibly jarring. Really, what’s to be gained by following scenes of Tyler rapping for his sister with solemn conversations about why their parents divorced in the first place? These are then followed by scenes inspired by Halloween mazes, in which creepy people pop out of dark places and make you scream.
I’ve tried my best to see Shyamalan’s viability as a filmmaker. But there’s something about his narrative and stylistic sensibilities that I seem naturally unwilling to embrace – and yes, that applies even to The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, his earliest and most praised films. Most everything he makes is such a transparent effort to be clever; when you know that nothing about the story is what it seems, you quickly learn to put your guard up, to not fall for the trickery when it presents itself. It doesn’t help when said cleverness forces you to look back at the events of the films and realize that none of them would in any way, shape, or form be possible. With The Visit, he makes the exact same mistake.