Published Sep 10, 2015There's a new M. Night Shyamalan movie. Here's the twist: it's fantastic.
The Visit, a hand-held mockumentary-style film written and directed by Shyamalan, strips away all the pretensions, all the big budget special effects, all the awkward dialogue and absurd plots he's become infamous for. Instead, we're served with a Hansel and Gretel story about a family learning how to be honest with their pain that slyly winks at the overwrought cinematic style that's bogged down Shyamalan for years.
Aspiring filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother, aspiring rapper Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), pay a week-long visit to their estranged grandparents, who their mother (the always-wonderful Kathryn Hahn) ran away from 15 years earlier and hasn't spoken to since. Seeking closure for her still-guilty mother, Becca begins making a documentary film about their visit, discovering their mother's roots and attempting to facilitate a family reconciliation. The only problem is, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a little weird. Okay, make that a lot weird.
DeJonge and Oxenbould are surprisingly charming leads, sweet and likeably plucky. Rather than being wooden plot devices to forward the convoluted narrative of a film, the personal struggles of these protagonists provides the core around which The Visit revolves. Shyamalan is adept at writing characters that learn how to turn their biggest weakness into their biggest strengths, and watching Becca and Tyler overcome theirs is pretty satisfying.
The decision to make Becca a budding auteur is a convenient excuse to have tightly framed, chilling shots, but it's also an excellent way to poke gentle fun at overly composed and overly staged horror movie filmmaking. "Leave it alone," Becca says as she directs her brother to stand by a swing gently swaying in the breeze. "Let it swing organically." At the start of the film's final, cathartic act, that same swing sways, organically, in the moonlight, as the "spooky" organ music Becca decried as "hokey" earlier in the film plays on.
The film's scariest scenes are mostly jump scares, but they're so absurd and self-aware it's hard to imagine that they weren't intended to be hilarious as well as horrifying. While watching The Visit, there are numerous times one expects the film to devolve into Shyamalan-isms, but it never happens. It's, M. Night Shyamalan throwing us the craziest twist of all: a fun, refreshingly straightforward, nail-biting thriller. We're finally laughing with Shyamalan, not at him.