Shyamalan Stumbles Again With "The Visit"

It wasn’t so long ago that M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) possessed the sturdiest body of work of any filmmaker under 40. Now at 45, he’s the less-than-proud owner of a mostly rubbled filmography, facing a long uphill climb back to respectability. It’s a longshot.

In his defense, few have seemed more confused by his career trajectory than he has, each new film a wild swing at an ill-defined target. At least “The Visit” makes a modicum of sense as a back-to-basics horror flick that inevitably hinges on a twist – and a pretty good one, at that. In theory, the movie is in good-Shyamalan’s wheelhouse, its relatively low budget ($5 million) affording the writer-director both creative freedom and built-in restraint.

In practice, however, it’s one step forward, a few long jumps back.

“The Visit” centers on two siblings – 15 year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13 year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) – visiting their maternal grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn, “Step Brothers”) has long been estranged from her folks, but acquiesces to her kids’ request to meet them. She puts Becca and Tyler on a train and the youngsters soon arrive at their grandparents’ rural, vaguely creepy farmhouse.

Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are similarly unnerving, prone to emotional outbursts and uncomfortable silence. The kids are instructed to never leave their room after 9:30 PM, but curiosity inevitably leads them to uncover some disturbing late night rituals.

Shyamalan’s often inexplicable set-up (why would Mom ship her kids to these veritable strangers after 15 years, sight unseen?) requires that the leads make no meaningful attempt to escape, a conceit made even more frustrating by the pic’s unnecessary found footage angle. Becca is making a documentary, each kid armed with a camera and an obnoxious personality quirk. Becca is misguidedly determined to “fix” her mother’s past. Tyler is an aspiring rapper.

Not only is the found footage device fruitless, but it comes off as belated trend-chasing, with the cheap-looking cinematography – once the writer-director’s strong suit – doing a major disservice to the pic’s atmosphere.

Maybe worst of all is the screenplay’s casual ageism, painting old people as gross weirdos. Whenever Nana or Pop Pop does something repulsive, it’s explained away as something elderly folks do. Without fail. The ultimate explanation for their nocturnal shenanigans – referred to here as “sundowning” – isn’t any less careless.

It’s almost too bad that audiences are likely to lose patience with the abysmal acting, stilted attempts at humor, and uneventful story before the movie becomes interesting at the hour mark.

There’s a twenty-minute passage in act three that nearly makes the rest of “The Visit” worth suffering through. A few sequences are genuinely amusing and spooky and house Shyamalan’s best twist in ages. But the fun is short-lived, begging for a second twist that never comes, leaving the movie to peter out where it might have sparked instead.

It’s a strange thing to watch a filmmaker try like hell to convince us that he’s in on the joke that’s become his career. A few tasty scraps result, but those disinclined to cinematic dumpster diving would be wise to walk right on by.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: September 11, 2015
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language)