I have loved M. Night Shyamalan since Sixth Sense. I felt betrayed by such flops as Signs, The Last Airbender, and that movie about killer plants. (I liked After Earth, by the way.) But most of his work is really pretty awesome, so I’m always excited when I see one of his movies come out.
We first heard news about The Visit back in March of 2014, when the title was Sundowning and the movie was being referred to as “indie” and low budget. Shyamalan’s work (when it’s his original work) is almost always “low budget” in that he never needs a lot of actors or sets or special effects and “indie” in that he doesn’t give a crap about Hollywood and its standards or tropes.
The Visit is classic Shyamalan. The majority of the film takes place in and around a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania and the number of actors is very small. Aside from about twenty to twenty five extras, the cast is composed of only six people, nine if you count three innocent bystanders.
It also follows the classic Shyamalan formula:
- Life is trucking along innocently enough, though with an ominous cloud
- Things become mildly disconcerting
- Things get worse really quickly
- THE TWIST
- I have trouble going to sleep that night
A single mother (played by Kathryn Hahn) sends her kids to visit her parents, who she hasn’t spoken to in over a decade. The mother thinks this is just an opportunity for her daughter, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) to film a documentary and for her parents to get to know their grandchildren. But Becca and her little brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) reveal that it’s really so that their mother can go on a cruise with her boyfriend. They like her boyfriend, want her to be happy, and so give her the space to focus on this romance.
However, once the kids arrive, life gets strange. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) begins to act weird after 10 pm. Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) explains that it’s an old person disorder called “sundowning”, when darkness causes an older person to act a little strange. He tells Becca that she and her little brother shouldn’t come out of their room after 9:30 pm.
But the strangeness isn’t confined to nighttime. Among other events, Tyler discovers a shed full of used adult diapers (gag) and Nana has a fixation with Becca going all the way into the oven to clean it. And there’s a really terrifying scene of playing tag under the house. After one frightening night too many, Tyler and Becca beg their mother to come get them. On the heels of this, we receive THE TWIST and, holy crap, what a twist.
Shyamalan is really good at coming up with multi-layered characters and carefully placed subplots that accentuate whatever is happening emotionally to the characters.
For instance, Becca is a fifteen year old who tries to speak like an experienced film director, using words I certainly didn’t know at that age. Tyler is “ethnically confused” (Becca’s words, not mine) and pretends to be a tough thug. As the movie progresses, we learn that Tyler has a severe germ phobia and Becca can’t look at herself in a mirror.
Becca’s documentary is supposed to be about their mother as a teen, how she met their father, and what happened on the day her mother left home. Apparently, there was a big argument and something happened their mother won’t discuss. But we quickly learn that Becca’s documentary is really about their father and his abandonment.
On top of this, the kids are funny and essentially goodhearted. It’s very easy to care for them.
And for people who’ve had to help the elderly or were close to their grandparents, it’s easy to like Nana and Pop Pop. If anything, their strangeness can evoke sympathy because we can see in them the onset of dementia. When friends of the grandparents come in to check on them, we become concerned for their well-being while worrying that there’s a deeper issue we aren’t seeing through the eyes of the kids.
The mother is also easy to like. She obviously wants the best for her kids while dealing with her own emotional wounds.
All in all, these are well-crafted characters.
According to the Mayo Clinic website, sundowning syndrome is
a state of confusion at the end of the day and into the night. Sundowning can cause a variety of behaviors, such as confusion, anxiety, aggression or ignoring directions. Sundowning can also lead to pacing or wandering.
Sundowning isn’t a disease, but a group of symptoms that occur at a specific time of the day that may affect people with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. The exact cause of this behavior is unknown.
The wonderful thing about M. Night Shyamalan is that he can take a real world thing (like sundowning) and use it as a setup for something even worse. Now every time I see an elderly person “sundown”, I’m going to get nervous.
Touches of Comedy
There are moments of comedy in the film. It’s a natural sort of humor, though.
The kids make references to pop culture and technology that the grandparents obviously don’t get. Tyler does silly things in front of the camera, like flexing or tossing a ball up in the air and claiming that “this is how kids play”.
According to the imdb page, Shyamalan said he did three cuts of the film. One was pure comedy. One was pure horror. And the third “fell somewhere in between”. I think we got the cut that fell somewhere in between and it makes the film all that much better.
I’m not sure I want to see the pure horror cut.
A Must See
Anyone who likes Shyamalan or thrillers with a great twist should go see The Visit. It’s a very grounded film with well-crafted characters. Yes, the logic gets a little wobbly at certain points but the film’s other good points more than make up for that.
One warning: there is one scene that…well…if you have a gag reflex, don’t eat a big dinner immediately before seeing this film. Just FYI.
Have you gone to see the film? What did you think of it? What’s your favorite Shyamalan flick?