“The Visit” disturbed me in a couple of ways and only one of them was the effect Shyamalan was aiming for. I’ll tell you why, but it’s going to get into super-spoilery territory, so you have been warned (and will be again, because this is M Night Shyamalan, so spoilers are, like, everything).
Brother and sister Tyler and Becca are in their early teens and are visiting their maternal Grandparents for the first time. They’ve never met their grandparents before because their mum fought with them when she left home and hasn’t been back since. So severe was the falling out that parenting superstar that she is, she doesn’t come with her children to drop them off, leaving Becca and Tyler to travel to Nana and Pop-pop’s farm by themselves. Don’t get me wrong – it would have been a short, boring film if Mum had gone with them.
Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is an annoying know-it-all future film maker and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) is her bratty younger brother who has a liking for rap music and all its lyrical misogyny. The grandparents at first seem to be just regular senior citizens who live on an old farm but soon begin to exhibit bizarre and frightening behaviours.
“The Visit” is really just a twisted, contemporary mash-up of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel (as if those fairy tales needed to be any more twisted). It’s not M Night Shyalaman’s greatest film – I enjoyed “The Village” more than this but it’s a welcome step back in the right direction after recent misfires like “The Happening” and “The Last Airbender”. The trademark twist isn’t the earth shattering rugpull of some of his previous work and tonally, it flirts with being a paranormal horror and a thriller, ultimately doing neither justice. On the positive side, the young leads do a great job with the material and while the story may not be the strongest, Shyamalan is savvy enough to add some visual flair – and decent jump scares – to proceedings by using POV footage from the cameras that were permanently in their hands.
The other disturbing aspect of this film is the lazy stereotyping inherent in the throwaway catch-all plot devices used to explain the twist. It’s hard not to take away the messages that: 1) old people are weird and should be shunned and feared and 2. Mental illness is something to be afraid of because all mentally ill people are potential monsters.
*I’M REALLY NOT KIDDING ABOUT THE SPOILER WARNING NOW*
Even after both the spoiler warnings?
So the twist is that the grandparents are not actually the grandparents at all (but grandma, what big teeth you have) and the real Nana and Pop-pop are dead in the basement having been killed by the two imposters. Those imposters in turn are two escaped mentally ill patients who knew the couple from their volunteering visits at the local hospital. The film never bothers to explain or elaborate on the nature of their ‘mental illness’ trusting that the audience will willingly accept this shorthand for murderous intentions. There’s an attempt at poignancy when the killers confess their motivations but it does nothing to mitigate the reinforcement of the social stigmas surrounding mental health.
Like many of Shyamalan’s clever conceits, it begins to unravel when you really think about it (except “The Sixth Sense” – that thing is rock solid in concept and execution the first and second time you watch it). The real Nana and Pop-pop have not been seen by their community for several days and have missed their volunteering duties while two patients are missing from the hospital yet there doesn’t seem to be a lot of concern or action from the local authorities.
The kids are in contact with their mum via Skype most days, but when the children share their concerns about the strange behaviours she tells them, ‘well old people are strange’. Yet more peerless parenting from Kathryn Hahn’s character. Even once Becca has Google-diagnosed Nana as suffering from dementia and Pop-pop as schizophrenia, Mum still doesn’t think it might be a good idea to come and make sure her kids and her parents are okay. That #MumOfTheYear award is a lock, surely?
As a dressed-up pseudo urban-legend with an unimaginatively wrongheaded stereotype at its core, “The Visit” is quite a disappointment however some stylish directorial touches and the strong performances from those pesky kids elevates this from being yet another Shyamalan misfire to an encouraging ‘room for improvement’.