What makes a thriller? Is it a consistent sense of dread? Or a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety? A thriller in the sense of this film relies on the terror of two grandparents and a week-long visit between them and their two grandchildren. What this film centers around is more than just dread, it’s focused on the family and their connections, the tragedies between them, and the occasional bit of scatological humour that surprisingly works. But no matter what it is, M. Night Shyamalan has written and directed his latest film about these things in The Visit.
Tragedy has occurred in the family. Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have to stay with their grandparents while their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. After years of estrangement between the three of them, the mother gets back in contact with her parents that want to meet their grandchildren. Meanwhile, the precocious Rebecca has decided to film a documentary about her journey and disillusionment between her mother and grandparents. But, of course, something else is wrong. The grandparents seem a little weird. They’re sleepwalking, and doing all sorts of weird things. And why are there soiled diapers in the shed?
The Visit doesn’t bother spending too much time setting up the story, nor should it need to. Shyamalan seems aware enough that this isn’t the most mind-bending concept for a film, but fills in the blanks with various subtleties. It may sound like Shyamalan looks at a stock plot and adds in random story bits like a page from Mad Libs, but there’s more to it. Character arcs about letting down absentee fathers, and being afraid and self-conscious of your own figure are prominent and effectively acknowledged throughout the course of the film. The Visit doesn’t just occur to scare audiences, but allows them to be inside the heads of these characters in situations, not just physically frightening, but emotionally as well.
One very effective scene comes in the form of a hide-and-seek game. Grids of dirt and concrete are aligned under the house in the rural community. The two children remember a story of the Mother playing the game under the same house over 20 years ago. As the ritual carries on through the generations, the children notice scurrying along the dirt in front of them when they notice their grandmother chasing after them like a feral animal. Shyamalan’s superb direction carries the scene at a nerve-wracking pace and doesn’t let up until a smooth resolution with a bit of comedy near the end for good measure.
While the infusion of comedy into Shyamalan’s filmmaking is definitely a positive, it also shows itself grating on the viewer with Tyler’s rapping. A joke that goes on for too long, it nearly ruins the ending of a film that had a near perfect conclusion, if not for another unnecessary scene to close off the final unanswered questions. And after the amazing reveal of the film, plot holes start to pop up into the narrative – nothing that ruins the film entirely, but they’re enough to pick at the narrative that has grabbed onto you throughout. Also, while the writing and direction is very well done, all other aspects just feel sufficient. The cinematography isn’t pleasant to view. Even though it is a found-footage type movie, it should still look somewhat nice. The score is also kind of dull when it is there. We would just hope everything is up to par.
With his self-proclaimed thriller, The Visit, Shyamalan has managed to escape his filmmaking rut and create an incredibly satisfying feature that works with subtlety and deft humour throughout. It isn’t up to the level of The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, but it is a major step forward for a director that’s been down in the dumps. Now what can he do next?