Audiences have mostly laughed at M. Night Shyamalan’s last four movies over the space of 11 years, though none were made as comedies. So for “The Visit,” he invites us to laugh with him – and also to be spooked by this story of two kids visiting eerie grandparents.
He has gone back to his roots as a writer-director: unfamiliar actors, a budget of a reported $5 million, a running time of 94 minutes. But he has the same problems as in recent projects: We get a big buildup with a tiny payoff, a mystery whose “twist” ending comes as no surprise, well-crafted direction and clunky writing in which almost every character behaves in unbelievable ways.
Shyamalan appeared in the trailer for “The Visit,” reminding us he directed “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” (but not mentioning they came out 15 and 16 years ago). He doesn’t mention “The Happening,” “Lady in the Water,” “After Earth” or “The Last Airbender” – all proof he needs to find a skillful screenwriter (Christopher McQuarrie, perhaps) whose vision Shyamalan could shape visually.
“The Visit” stops making sense literally in the first scene, when a mother who has been estranged from her parents since she walked out at 19 lets her teenage son and daughter visit them in rural Pennsylvania.
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She hates Nana and Pop Pop (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) so badly that she has destroyed all photos of them and never let the kids meet them. Suddenly, though, young Becca and Tyler (Australian actors Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) need a bonding experience.
When they arrive, the old people behave bizarrely and disgustingly, providing only the thinnest explanations for their actions. And while Shyamalan competently scares us from time to time and makes us laugh uncomfortably at the odd actions – aren’t we snickering at mental illness? – he has nowhere interesting to take this simple tale.
He shoots mostly in the “found footage” vein, because the kids photograph everything for a family documentary, and commits the usual sins of that genre: The camera shakes annoyingly, shots occur where no one could or would carry a camera, and the director suddenly changes points of view.
Nor do the emotions matter. The kids occasionally express anger at losing dad to divorce, but that’s scarcely relevant. The mom (Kathryn Hahn) seems unreal, and the explanation of the “shocking” event that happened on the day she permanently walked away from her parents has no weight.
Shyamalan has always had a way with young actors, and both the grave DeJonge and buoyant Oxenbould stand out. Dunagan and McRobbie seem alternately pathetic and sinister, which suits their characters. But all four are trying to cook a delicious chicken Kiev out of feathers, gizzards and beaks.
Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie.
Writer-director: M. Night Shyamalan.
Length: 94 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language).