It’s going to be a struggle to believe what I’m about to say, especially since all the weight of popular culture is pressing against you trusting me on this, but what follows is 100% true, genuine, and deeply felt. There is no farce or artifice when I say this: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit is the best horror film I’ve seen this year. It’s the best film from 2015 I’ve seen, period. It’s so good that it’s retroactively made me want to revisit Lady in the fucking Water, to see if there’s something I’m missing, some piece of the puzzle that this completes to make me understand what on earth he was going for that time. It’s a landmark in modern film theorizing, the nature of artifice, and the uses and purpose of found footage (hint: me and M. Night agree that its relationship to The Truth is totally unimportant). It’s also incredibly entertaining throughout, a riveting and energetic take on family and identity that despite its density never feels like a dry academic exercise. Instead of lecturing about these things, Shyamalan made something living and breathing, giving evidence of his arguments in the form of genre film. In the theater, it felt monumental, like the first time I saw Bergman or Malick. I don’t want to be openly hyperbolic, because it’s too easy to dismiss appraisals like that, but know that I really feel like this is something special.
So special, in fact, that I missed a deadline for writing this because I didn’t know where to begin. Every piece of the film extends out like rays of light from a cartoon sun, going off from a center to its own goals and ends. The plot you basically saw in the trailer (and, as perhaps is evident in other reviews I’ve done, not the kind of thing I’m particularly interested in): a pair of young siblings go to stay with a grandmother and grandfather they’ve never met before, strangers to them due to their mother leaving home at age 19 and refusing to see them since. The two people the children find themselves with for a week are at best creepy and at worst seemingly malevolent, and mysterious and suspect happenings begin to occur, including late-night episodes of violence and an unusually large oven.
And that’s…really it. The setup essentially is the plot. It’s built up on incident, character setting moments that come back as important details later, throwaway lines that echo as leitmotifs throughout, not so much progressing through a story as progressing through moods and levels of danger, escalating like a traditional horror film but never taking the straight path from one point to the next. Is it a plot point when the grandmother spills batter on the laptop webcam? How about when they play hide and seek underneath the house? Or what the boy finds in the grandfather’s locked shed? Not really, but it’s all important, and without it the ambling would amble an entirely different way. Every single moment leads to the next, but to say it has a particular beat by beat plot would be misleading. It’s best to think of each moment as someone coloring in part of a painting, where the outline and borders are clear from the beginning but the colors and shades only become clear as painting is being completed.
This is certainly to the movie’s strength, and to the strengths of Shyamalan as a setup kinda guy and not so much a formal one. He’s meticulous in his detailing, but the more macro the plot gets the more he loses control of the micro, his precision and restraint, resulting in formless and dull films with none of his character (see his worst movie, The Last Airbender, and his most boring, After Earth, for prime examples). The reason he became so renowned and then infamous for his twists is because of this attention to detail, the things that tell the audience something without them even realizing it. It’s the electric lights in The Village, it’s the water glasses around the house in Signs, it’s the eye-lines of the people in The Sixth Sense being just ever so slightly off. When he gets into minutiae, he has a craftsman’s immaculate eye for precision, not wasting a single detail. The twists are just a means to get everything to click together, to come into focus, a way of showing you things that were there the entire time. So when we see things in The Visit that seem off or strange or almost like clumsy filmmaking, we universally see later that they were plants, more obvious versions of what he does in every other moment, economically editing and directing so that each instant in the film becomes vital later. There is no wasted time, and no amateur mistakes. This artisanship makes us perk our ears up and pay attention, because we know there’s a reason things are happening the way they are, we just need to find that reason.
Once we put this trust in The Visit, it opens itself up, and we can see what was being done, what the purpose is, and what we can get out of it (besides a crackerjack theater-going experience, which is not to be underestimated or dismissed). On the first level, we have the use of found footage, which is traditionally viewed as a way to increase the reality of a film, to make it documentary-like, to make it seem REAL, man, like, totally. This was a big part of the marketing campaign for The Blair Witch, that woefully overrated movie that was nonetheless instrumental in establishing what found footage meant as a signifier for people not obsessed with it like me. Hand-held cameras, pretending at being a real record of real people, this is what the style is “supposed” to mean, or at least that’s what we’re told it’s supposed to mean. No doubt it’s the perspective of the general audience viewing the film, trained by schlock like Paranormal Activity to judge the book by its reality.
But on the second level, the level where we get somewhere, M. Night and I, we both saw Man Bites Dog, the 1992 landmark in the style; We both know Punishment Park; hell, I’d wager that we’re both big fans of Grave Encounters, a by-the-book (if exceptionally executed) example of the form that nonetheless exhibits the same thing, a disapproval of cinéma vérité assumptions. At the end of the day, it’s all fake, and there’s no need to pretend otherwise. Found footage horror films are not pieces of Italian neorealism. Sure, they have set-ups that sound like home movies or documentaries or security camera footage dredged up during a police investigation, but just because they quack like ducks doesn’t mean they’re ducks. Shyamalan is not portraying or trying to portray the kind of reality that will trick us into thinking we’re not watching a piece of fiction. If anything, found footage is far more subjective than traditional filmmaking, implying a point of view and lack of omniscience. The camera can only see what is in front of it, and we do not pretend otherwise.
So look at that lighting; it looks like a stage, and for good reason. Look at how fast the kids move while crawling around with heavy cameras, and how they don’t drop the cameras even in scenes of complete and utter terror; they’re actors. They’re not in danger. They hold onto the camera because that is what the movie, the movie we are watching, needs them to do. He lets the audience in on a secret that the film critic cognoscenti haven’t gotten a grip on by spitting in the face of nit-picky critics who wonder aloud why the protagonist in any hand-camera horror film is so dedicated to filming, ever when it endangers their life. He’s saying, “It’s not real asshole. It’s a movie.”
It’s a Brechtian defiance of realism, a rebellion against it, and to M. Night’s credit, he makes it as obvious as possible, begging you to see it and selling it hard. Hell, one of the kids literally uses the phrase “mise en scéne” to describe the artificial nature of the interview he’s being set up for, doing everything but banging his head into the fourth wall. The girl is too precocious to be real? Exactly! She’s an archetype, her character requires that. The grandparents are cartoon boogeymen, so unreal that no child in their right mind would stay with them another night? Of course! They’re the mysterious villains of a horror movie, what else do you expect? It indulges in genre tropes to remind us of what we’re seeing. We do not need art to be “real” for it to impact us, to move us, and we don’t need to think a horror movie really happened for it to scare us. The less fantastical details can be wonderful window dressing, and it’s not saying that every movie has to be a broad fantasy, but one of the most beautiful, wonderful things about human consciousness is that we can take the unreal and emotionally understand it, interpreting it to be something that makes sense to us. We don’t have to be so goddamn literal all the time. We can free ourselves from the tyranny of verisimilitude.
Like any good theorist, Shyamalan provides proofs for his statements, and his proof of artifice’s power and uses comes in the form of the emotional core of the film, and the emotional core of his filmography as a whole: the idea of family and the way the past weighs on us every day. When the kids meet their grandparents, people who are complete strangers to them, they immediately begin calling them “Nana” and “Pop-Pop”, and everyone goes along with this lie of familiarity to ease the tension and erase the mistakes of their personal histories, setting up a recurring theme of the way we delude ourselves into getting what we want, of not seeing problems as they arise because the problems of the past continue to press down on us. Divorce, single parents, duplicity, and forgiveness, these are all themes in every Shymalan film to date, and The Visit uses its artificiality to comment on these specifically. No one’s really being who they are. Everyone in the family is lying to keep up an illusion of normality, when underneath the surface there’s anger, there’s loneliness, there’s fear and pain and resentment, kept suppressed by everyone’s willingness to deny what’s really in front of them.
But, crucially, the deceivers are not always bad people; Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould sell us on Becca and Tyler as protagonists because their flaws aren’t monstrous, but totally understandable. Being raised by a single mom, abandoned by a dad who figured he found something better, they’re both searching for control over something, anything, to make it all come together, to make it all make sense. Shymalan’s gotten a bad reputation lately for not knowing how to direct actors, but his work here proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that such claims are ludicrous. The wild changes in tone would come off as messy, unorganized, and pointless if it weren’t for those two anchoring the whole thing. A heartbreaking pair of scenes where both of them talk around what their father’s abandonment did to them bring us back from the silly comedy and genre tropes and into something grounded, something honest, as a counterpoint to the artifice surrounding them. We know it’s all sets, they’re all actors, it’s all a contrivance playing at real life, but in those moments that contrivance shows its purpose as an incredible point of catharsis and emotional heft.
There’s a cornucopia of other things to talk about in regards to The Visit — how it gets at, intimately, the horrors of being old and your body and mind failing you; the way it feints at different twists, playing off of Shymalan’s own reputation and body of work; the way it treats phobia and mental health, both positively and negatively — but at its core, it’s a story about what happens when we let the past and our actions there dictate how we live our life today, what happens to us when we hold onto anger and lie to ourselves and everyone around us to make things seem alright. Even in the horror and the humor, Shymalan never loses sight of the resonance of his story, of the reason we care about what’s happening. He doesn’t need the false sympathy of realism to do it, and he doesn’t stick to a tone of dour, ponderous sadness. Instead, he crafts a wonderful, exciting, hysterical, and incredibly smart picture around this center, trusting its strength as a foundation to hang a million other things on. So again, if I sound hyperbolic, you have to forgive me a bit. But despite seeing gobs of other wonderful films this year, none of them have made me burst with enthusiasm like The Visit.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan; written by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn; 94 minutes.
The Visit is currently playing in theaters everywhere.