Trigger warning: This is a review of a goddamn found-footage film.
Who hasn’t wanted to ship their kids off at one time or another for a relaxing week free of responsibility? Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) mom (Kathryn Hahn) has finally gotten that opportunity after fifteen years of being a mother. She left home nearly two decades prior without ever looking back or reconnecting with her own parents, but now they’ve reached out expressing an interest in meeting and getting to know their grandchildren. She puts budding filmmaker Becca and rapper-in-training Tyler on a train and heads off for a Caribbean cruise, but while she’s having fun in the sun her kids are entering something of a nightmare.
Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem pleasant, loving, and happy, and the week begins well enough as the kids get to roam the house and land where their mom spent her own childhood. Well, they can’t explore Pop Pop’s mysterious shed, the basement’s off limits, and it’s strongly suggested that they stay in their room past 9:30 pm. As the days of the week pass, their grandparents’ behavior grows more strange and menacing.
You’ll be hearing a lot about writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s “comeback” film, The Visit, over the next few weeks, but don’t mistake it as positive chatter. It’s a Blumhouse production, meaning the budget is considerably lower than Shyamalan is used to, and the combination of fun advertising, a PG-13 rating, and limited competition is guaranteed to put butts in seats. It’s going to do good business, but box-office has never been Shyamalan’s problem – all but one of his studio films (Unbreakable) have grossed well over their budgets.
Instead, the biggest issue over his past several films has been story packed to the seams with excessive detritus – filler meant to delight, distract, and disarm viewers from picking up too early on a theme or an upcoming twist – that ultimately snuffs out anything resembling the promise of an engaging narrative or character depth. Happily, The Visit avoids becoming a dull, convoluted mess. Unhappily, it’s instead a one-note, paper-thin build-up to a punchline you’ll see coming a country mile away.
Oh, and it’s a piece of found-footage fuckery that commits many of the obnoxious, distracting, and idiotic sins the format is known for.
Becca wants to be a documentary filmmaker and brings along two cameras to film the week as part of a hopeful reconciliation between her mom and grandparents, so we only see what those two lenses see. As is usually the case there’s no narrative purpose for the choice, and instead it’s clearly a decision made to lower the budget (the same reason we repeatedly hear horses just out of frame but never actually see them, because hey, what kids would even want to film horses) and increase opportunities for lazy jump scares. Note to found-footage filmmakers – we can only see what’s inside the frame, but the person holding the camera doesn’t share that limitation. We also get the requisite moments that leave us wondering not only why the kids are still filming but how they’re still filming – one scene has them panicked and scampering on all fours while still managing to keep the action in frame.
What we’re seeing is apparently Becca’s finished documentary too. There are chapter headings and voice-over work, but the editing is less about the family drama she’s supposedly making than it is an attempt at building suspense. To that end there are beats that work well to create a sense of immediate creepiness – hints of the talent that gave us the birthday party video in Signs – but they don’t add up to anything beside a weird obsession with vilifying the elderly. Nana and Pop Pop are there solely to be fodder for scares and easy laughs – a bit involving incontinence is played for shits and giggles – and Shyamalan has no interest in developing them further. The kids and the audience are instead told simply that old people get that way sometimes.
That speaks to the film’s emptiness too. The familial relationships – the intended topic of Becca’s doc – are introduced and then ignored until they can be dealt with in incredibly trite ways (if at all). Becca and Tyler want their mom to find forgiveness, but they also have problems of their own stemming from their father’s desertion. There’s room for real horror here, but why bother when Nana can make creepy faces into the camera for our amusement. There’s no longevity to the tension or terror – again, we know the kids will be fine as they clearly went on to edit their documentary – so the best the film can manage are beats that tease fairy tale familiarity (the oven scene) or jump scares manufactured around the POV frame.
There is some fun to be had outside of the attempts at drama and horror, but they come courtesy of the two least realistic kids in Shyamalan’s filmography. Their interactions provide occasional laughs, particularly on Tyler’s behalf, but it all feels removed from any sense of danger, terror, or realism. It’s difficult to blame DeJonge and Oxenbould though as their dialogue is so consistently “on” that you can almost here Shyamalan’s keyboard keys clicking as they talk. The fifteen year-old speaks like an NYU film grad cliche while her younger brother appears just one bong hit away from an impromptu rap involving snoochie boochies.
The Visit is horror for lazy marks and comedy for people who wish there were more funny films about Alzheimer’s. Some laughs make it through, and there’s an entertaining unease in a couple scenes, but a few minutes of fun in a week-long visit hardly seem worth the trip.
The Upside: Some laughs; some creepiness; Kathryn Hahn; no M. Night Shyamalan cameo
The Downside: Found footage distractions; too easy to stay ahead of the narrative; kids are not the least bit realistic