M. Night Shyamalan has proven himself a masterful visual storyteller several times over. From his breakthrough The Sixth Sense, which sold its famous big twist in a wordless reveal, to Signs and The Village, which kept their monsters almost entirely out of the frame, he’s shown a facility with long takes and precise composition, playing with background and foreground information and use of focus. Such patience, which he’s put to great effect even in big digital spectacles like After Earth, is rare in mainstream filmmaking these days. His latest film, The Visit, is a found footage horror movie, at first glance a form antithetical to his visual precision. But he uses it for all it’s worth, making its shaking and self-aware status assets instead of impediments. The carefully casual cinematography is used to highlight the importance of what’s seen and what’s not seen, how people perform for a camera and for each other, and how scary it can be to not have access to full information about a situation or a person.
The movie we’re watching is a documentary a 15-year-old girl (Olivia DeJonge) is making about her estranged grandparents. She and her 13-year-old brother (Ed Oxenbould) are meeting them for the first time, their mother (Kathryn Hahn) having had an angry severing of ties before their births. A precocious film buff thinking she’s on the verge of creating a moving story of family reunion, she conscripts her brother to be an assistant cameraman. So that’s how cinematographer Maryse Alberti convincingly explains two angles on the happenings as they head off to their grandparents’ remote Pennsylvania farmhouse to spend a week. She lectures her brother on the importance of mise-en-scène, on allowing the frame to suggest more beyond what it literally sees, on making sure they only film that which they’re directly involved with. (Consequently, the movie’s the best-looking, well-considered example of its type.) He’s happy to help, but also admits, “Who gives a crap about cinematic standards?”
Setting the groundwork for understanding why these kids end up with many fussy shots, and continue to film even when their vacation starts getting creepy, Shyamalan uses the camcorder footage to stage scenes of great visual mystery and uncanny normalcy to directly comment upon our position as viewers. We see what we see because of characters’ decisions. This puts us close to their thoughts, where a zoom or a pan can clue us into the mind of the person behind the scenes. Before the camera, we see people playing roles, pulling faces, trying to be what others expect of them. Behind it, we see curiosities in revealing visual choices. Like the best found footage – The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, Unfriended – the closeness it affords, and the commonness of its look, comments directly upon the character’s preoccupations. Here we see a girl who thought she could shape her life’s narrative, but realizes her grandparents aren’t following the script she’d had in her head.
When the kids first arrive, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) go out of their way to be grandparently stereotypes. They’re excited to meet the youngsters and are eager to fill a role they’ve never before gotten to play, giving tours, playing games, and providing lots of baked goods. Together the four characters have funny and awkward attempts to connect, forcing a family dynamic while gingerly ignoring as best they can the fact they’re total strangers. The charade can’t last long, and the first sad twist is a reveal of encroaching senility. While the kids wander around, hang out, ask questions, and get footage (the movie is perceptive about kids’ aimless free time to be filled with hobbies and wondering) they notice something off about the old folks. It’s not just the strict 9:30 bedtime. The elderly couple is suffering from forgetfulness, confusion, mood swings, sleepwalking, incontinence, violent anger, and maybe dementia or schizophrenia, too.
They’re just old, the kids think. That’s what their mom tells them when they worriedly Skype with her. They should just be careful and make the best of it. It’s only a few more days. Besides, it’ll make for a better documentary. Sliding into mercilessly nasty suspense, the movie accrues creepy details (a locked shed, a child-sized oven, a muddy well) and brilliant misdirection before springing surprise jolts in a finale full of jumpy scares, gross out shocks, perfectly timed violence, and the worst game of Yahtzee ever recorded. Every step of the way, it’s about what’s known and what’s unknown, what we can see for sure and we fear we can’t. While satisfying genre demands, Shyamalan makes good use of his conceit, cleverly pointing out its own mechanics (“This can be the dénouement,” the girl whispers excitedly near the climax) while sitting in unsettling intimate territory. It plays on common fears that older people in your life will inevitably slip away from you and become something you don’t recognize.
The Visit is a movie about the nature of performance, the person you try to be when others are watching. It’s smart about finding the performative aspects of childhood, and family life in general in another of Shyamalan's stories of broken families looking to be made whole. The form is an added wrinkle. The theoretical audience the camera represents is a factor in the leads’ behavior. We see the kids setting up shots, playing for the camera, looking at footage, editing, putting in music, and discussing their creative decisions. The girl hopes it’s not too schmaltzy. The boy wants to rap over the end credits. As the creepiness of their week builds, their posturing falls away. Eventually the camera is left to only capture clear slashes of fright, as characters become not who they want to be seen as, or who they hope to find, but who they really are. Amusing, scary, admirably strange, and expertly button-pushing, this is Shyamalan at his most crowd-pleasing.