What makes M. Night Shyamalan’s assertive comeback so amazing is its restraint. The Visit is a lot less than you think it is — turning on a twist that is carefully concealed yet awesomely obvious when you think it through. (My theatergoing buddy guessed it; I never did.) At the same time, this film seduces us with an audacious blend of comedy and terror, too.
The story concerns two kids whose father has run off, leaving them hurt but emotionally hyper. The junior hipsters want to be artists. Becca (Olivia DeJonge) will make movies, and this is her first attempt. Brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) is a rapper with surprising talent. Mom (Kathryn Hahn), also wounded by desertion, sends the kids off to visit her estranged parents in rural Pennsylvania. During the seven-day stay, Nana and Pop Pop start acting significantly weird, while the kids film everything, make wry comments, and gradually turn desperate. It has a nice slow build.
The children dominate the movie, even if you find their precociousness wearing. That might be the point; we’re not concerned for the smug little tykes’ safety, until suddenly we are. Meanwhile, the film has tons of unexpected brilliant touches, such as Tyler’s random decision to substitute the name of famous female pop stars when he means to curse. At one particularly horrifying moment in the movie, Tyler screams, “Katy Perry!” Tyler, a germophobe, also gets the nastiest treatment the movie has to offer.
It’s impossible to imagine how Shyamalan managed to resurface from the quagmire of The Happening to the cool perfection of this playful film; somewhere he earned a sense of humor to match his macabre gifts. This is not an examination of family terror; it’s something more peculiar and cool, containing the elements of ghost stories, fairy tales, and trauma fables. But it works because the director has newfound confidence in his real skill set, keeping us frightened until we laugh out loud. And vice versa.