By Kyle G. King. What the heck happened to M. Night Shyamalan? After exploding onto the scene with his first horror spectacular, The Sixth Sense, his filmography slowly devolved from respectable follow-ups (Unbreakable, and Signs), to mystifying head-scratchers (Lady In The Water and The Happening), all the way down to the angry mob-inducing late career efforts (We don’t have to mention After Earth, do we?). It’s tricky to discern whether the writer-director is admirably chasing ambitious chances on wholly new material (and sadly failing), or if the man once praised as “Alfred Hitchcock for the next generation” is slowly losing his touch (and possibly his mind). These two contrasting ideals emerge within his latest film, as Shyamalan dips his toe in the found footage horror genre for his eleventh directorial feature, The Visit.
Older sister Becca and younger brother Tyler (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) have never met their maternal grandparents, which can be attributed to their flighty mother (Kathryn Hahn, known only as Mom), who mysteriously severed all ties with her folks long ago. But after her estranged parents reach out again and again — in a desperate attempt to meet their grandchildren — Mom finally submits, dropping the kids off at the train station (and then… not joining them). Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) greet the kids at the station with baked goods, a welcome sign, and warm knitted sweaters — the Fred Rogers epitome of the wholesome grandparents image. But as time goes on, things aren’t quite as warm and wholesome as they seem: Grandpa keeps sneaking off to a desolate shed, Grandma crawls around underneath the house, and some strange, eerie noises disturb their sleep just after bedtime.
It becomes increasingly difficult to decipher which genre The Visit feels more comfortable residing in more. Even after the script warms up to its two teenage leads, their wisecracks and adolescent humor frequently pop up in between the more spookier scenes of the film. Perhaps in an attempt to balance the horror and the comedy out — or to further contrast and heighten each one respectively — this tactic ultimately leads down some unfortunate roads. Since the kids don’t seem to be taking the strange events all that seriously, the audience too only has a shallow investment in either the film’s humor or horror. It’s refreshing to see Shyamalan loosening up and enjoying the youthful vigor of his two stars, but the blend of comedy-drama is poorly organized and doesn’t lend itself to anything but seeming randomness.
M. Night does provide one solid stroke of originality within the found footage genre (and a sign of hope to those holding out hope for a Shyamalan-aissance): 15-year-old Becca takes this visit as an opportunity to craft a Oscar-caliber documentary about her mother’s departure from home. While this premise does provide a clever way in working itself out (it’s not completely unfathomable that the kids of Generation Selfie always have a camera in their hands), it’s never enough, and there lies Shyamalan’s frustrating and glaring conceit: When Becca talks about framing and the manipulation of mise-en-scène (along with commentary on classism: very sophisticated ideas for somebody so young), it gives the audience in a new perspective, one where we can’t help but roam the frame anxiously waiting for something to emerge from the corner of each shot the kids frame our perspectives.
The Visit as a whole has about half a dozen interesting ideas, but neglects focusing on any single one. Why did Mom leave home at nineteen? Why doesn’t Becca like to look at herself in the mirror? Why is Tyler’s germophobia important? How can the two kids come to understand what it means to get old? Why did their father leave? All these subjects are lightly touched on — and in a way, they are intriguing — but altogether abandoned once the film’s climactic twist arrives (one that is nowhere near as effective as it should be).
Beyond these questions lies the remains of The Visit, an ineffective, surreal film that leaves you asking the bigger questions, chiefly those of what it is, exactly, Mr. Shyamalan is doing with his career. A man once known for hair-raising suspense ought to have more tricks in his bag. And an audience who has endured eleven feeble grasps at relevance ought to know better by now. We learned that truth in The Sixth Sense; the attempt isn’t interesting once you know what’s coming.