When you really think about it, there’s a pretty big contrivance at the heart of The Visit. It’s so obvious, too. A completely avoidable situation when you stop to consider the simplicity of the solution.
And yet, without it, this film wouldn’t work. In fact, there wouldn’t be a film at all.
I had pretty much given up on M. Night Shyamalan, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who had shown such promise with The Sixth Sense and Signs. I blame The Village. Because he became famous for an astonishing plot twist, the screenwriter/producer/director made it a staple of his movies. But the big revelation of The Village was its total lack of honesty. I felt so cheated, for years I didn’t bother screening any of his follow-ups.
Watching The Visit, I was reminded of why I enjoyed The Sixth Sense. It doesn’t cheat. All the clues are right there in front of you if you pay close attention. When it all comes together at the one hour mark, you feel rewarded, not betrayed, glaring contrivance notwithstanding.
Conceived as an amateur shockumentary (which justifies all the first-person cinematography), we meet a broken family hoping to heal. The mom, Loretta (Crossing Jordan’s Kathryn Hahn), is still reeling from two connected traumas. She married one of her high school teachers after graduation. Her parents warned her he wasn’t fully committed. The dispute forced Loretta to cease all contact with them. (During her initial on-camera interview, she’s understandably cagey about some of the disturbing details.) Then, many years later, her husband dumped her and her two kids for a Starbucks barista.
Now happily attached with a Latino man she ends up going on a cruise with, at the same time aspiring rapper son Tyler (the hilarious Ed Oxenbould) and ambitious filmmaker daughter Becca (the funny, smart & lovely Olivia DeJonge) collectively decide on their own to spend a week with Nana and Pop Pop who Loretta has avoided for 15 years.
Behind Tyler’s not-so-smooth flow (which is endlessly amusing) is a wounded heart. During an interview with his sister, he reveals a painful childhood memory. He froze during a key play at a school football game which prevented him from tackling an approaching rusher. His now absent father never expressed any anger for his mistake. He left the family shortly thereafter. On top of that, Tyler is a serious germophobe. Toilet paper and his silly raps help him cope.
When he interviews Becca, he confronts her about her refusal to look at herself in the mirror. (I love the way he slowly zooms in on her which she is instantly aware of. Her self-consciousness is her biggest vulnerability.) The movie never really comes out and explains why, but you have to believe it’s because she sees the reflection of her father in her own face. The ultimate trigger.
As the kids work on their film, they can’t help noticing how strange their grandparents are. Nana unexpectedly joins them in a game of hide and seek one afternoon which completely freaks them (and us) out. She isn’t wearing any underwear. One night, she is quietly observed walking briskly around the house, first normally, then like a dog. Another night, she’s witnessed banging her head against the wall while naked.
Pop Pop is caught putting a rifle in his mouth in the barn (he claims he was cleaning it) which is where he stores his soiled adult diapers. During a trip out to Loretta’s old high school, he spots an innocent bystander he thinks is gunning for him, so he attacks him. Oh, and he sometimes dresses up for a company party before changing back once he realizes that it doesn’t exist.
Becca’s online research reveals that they may have a form of dementia known as sundowning. Tyler is absolutely convinced that’s not at all what’s going on. Every so often, visitors arrive wondering why Nana & Pop Pop have stopped volunteering at a local hospital. How convenient that they’re never around when this happens.
And then comes the big reveal. It’s a doozy. But like I said, despite how easily all of this could’ve been avoided, it’s logical. It works. And it pays off in unexpected ways.
Released last September, The Visit is the best found footage movie since The Last Exorcism, the only other good one I’ve seen thus far. Shyamalan’s sharp screenwriting finds the tricky balance between intentional hilarity and gripping terror all while presenting the story not as a work of fiction but as a real-time documentary. We like the kids and their mom. We care about their heartbreak and their dilemma. Hahn, Oxenbould & DeJonge deliver authentic, sympathetic performances.
Also superb are Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie who take real risks with their own portrayals of two seriously screwed up seniors. They could’ve looked ridiculous. Their actions could’ve inspired unintentional laughter. Instead, they are genuinely scary. That scene where Nana spots the camera will give you the chills.
Despite the absence of an early common sense decision, The Visit is a creepy riot. Seek it out. It’s a real sleeper.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, May 8, 2016