The new movie from M. Night Shyamalan… is… good?
Feels weird to type that, you guys. AND YET.
After a string of high-profile critical disasters (if not financial disasters—The Last Airbender made over twice its budget back when you factor in international sales, in case you needed another reason to hate the world today), the director infamous for tanking harder and faster than season two of Heroes is back in theaters with The Visit, about a sister and brother who go off into Bumfuck, Nowhere to spend a week with their grandparents, whom they’ve never met because of ancient family drama. With only a handful of locations and four characters with substantial screentime (bonus Kathryn Hahn pops up as the kids’ mother in a few scenes), The Visit was done on a much smaller scale than recent Shyamalan disasters After Earth, The Happening, and The Last Airbender, presumably because people finally realized they should stop giving him money.
The result is a film that, while not particularly original, is well-made and vastly more fun than I’d have thought Shyamalan would ever “lower” himself to be. To get that coveted PG-13 rating, there’s a schtik where the brother—played by Ed Oxenbould, who deftly toes the line of obnoxious enough to be entertaining but not so obnoxious you want to punch his face off—replaces curse words with the names of female pop stars. “Like, if I stub my toe—Shakira!”
Another standout is Tony Award-winning actress Deanna Dunagan as the grandmother, who runs around sans underpants (you only see the back view—again, PG-13) playing up the crazy like she is having the best damn time of her life. Olivia DeJonge brings an authentic mix of teenage fragility and pretentiousness to older sister Becca, who’s decided to film the family reunion for a documentary. (Yes, The Visit is found footage, but it’s not too obnoxious about it.) “That guy” actor Peter McRobbie (he most recently played the priest in Netflix’s Daredevil, acting opposite Charlie Cox
’s abs) rounds out the cast as Pop Pop, who tries to explain away his wife’s batshit behavior—running around at night with no clothes on, random bouts of vomiting—by saying she has an extreme case of sundowning.
The Visit was co-produced by Blumhouse Productions, which has made its name by releasing serviceable horror films like the Insidious, Sinister and Paranormal Activity movies. They’re not the greatest things ever, but they (mostly) work, and they’re made on low budgets so they don’t have to make a ton at the box office. For better or worse, there’s generally not a lot of room for creative risk-taking at Blumhouse (with some exceptions—hey, Unfriended!), and if I’m imagining producer Jason Blum popping Shyamalan in a ThunderShirt to calm him down or strapping him in one of those harnesses you put on unruly children… well, that’s probably metaphorically accurate on some level. It’s a modest movie, which is not an adjective I thought would apply to Shyamalan, ever. There’s no self-casting as a misunderstood genius writer (a la Lady in the Water), and the twist (yes, there is a twist) is more of the standard THE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE! variety than something big and bombastic that sounds impressive until you realize it makes no damn sense. (Hey, The Village! And I like Signs, but I fully admit that ending is bogus.)
So, no, The Visit is not a return to the heights of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. It was never going to be. I think a lot of the high buzz for this movie comes from a place of low expectations—at this point, we expect Shyamalan movies to be flaming disasters, so when they’re not, it’s a big deal. The Visit is not a big deal movie. If you’re choosing one horror film this weekend, see Goodnight Mommy instead. But The Visit is still pretty damn good, if not groundbreaking, which at this point in Shyamalan’s career is about the extent of what we can reasonably expect.