The Visit, a solid, winking return for M. Night Shyamalan, wrestles with fears about aging, uses the documentary-footage horror device in a fresh way, and plays with fairytale and supernatural tropes. As the film progresses it becomes apparent that 15-year-old Rebecca, a prococious aspiring filmmaker, is hoping to fix things in her family and offer her mother the “elixir” of forgiveness via her footage. Rebecca’s family-uniting ambitions get derailed as their grandparents behavior turns from odd to frightening, but even when they start to fear for their lives she refuses to give up her emotionally-charged mission.
Right away the film takes on a Grimm’s fairytale veneer as Nana showers the children with delicious food while Pop Pop tools around in a creepy shed. The yummy treats don’t seem to be poisoned or bewitched, but they are alluring enough to tempt Rebecca into grabbing some for a midnight snack despite a firm warning to stay in their room after 9:30 p.m. Her compulsion leads to a disturbing sight: Nana’s wandering around in the dark projectile vomiting, basically to a rhythm. Pop Pop’s explanation is that “old people get sick,” but the type of vomiting Nana engaged in was the type only found in cinematic demon possession.
Everything about the couple’s weird behavior seemed to suggest some sort of possession or paranormal upset, and that should have made me suspicious. Perhaps the biggest deception to my brain that we were dealing with a typical ghost-story was the documentary-style of the film, which has become delightfully synonymous with demonic-ghost things.
Given these paranormal expectations I was surprised to find out that they weren’t ghosts at all, but criminally insane murderers! It’s the type of twist that looks dumb if you read it as a spoiler, but it turns out to actually a lot of fun (for many) during the ride itself. The strained, madcap game of Yahtzee as a desperate grasp on picture-perfect family time just sealed the deal for me. Part of the reason it’s fun is that the film’s laced with humor, and is poking fun at itself just as much as it’s trying to spook us. The humor is mild, though, it’s not straight horror or straight satire. It’s more a fond celebration of a number of tropes. Rebecca’s precocious seriousness is believable and endearing, but it’s also a nod to the immature follies of taking yourself too seriously, indicating maybe M. Night Shyamalan’s learned some tough lessons from some of his less well-received efforts.
Tacked onto the very end of the film is the emotional payoff Rebecca was looking for, and seems a bit disjointed with the rest of the film. Just a few minutes ago these kids were shown killing the people who murdered their grandparents, so cutting to a scene of their mother telling them to let go of anger just seems a little weird. Still, it’s not completely unbelievable. The whole package seems a bit like a ramped-up version of Nev Shulman’s original film Catfish.
There are some issues with plausibility in the film. Although the fake grandparents had a history of violence (for sure Nana did, Pop Pop’s past was unclear from my recollection) they apparently were in a regular psychiatric hospital (Meadow Shade,) not a criminal mental health facility. Still, because of their age they could have already served time in a secure prison-system psychiatric hospital, and were receiving care as civilizations. It’s also strange that no one seemed to be looking for two escaped patients, and no one except the ex-rehab patient came looking for the real grandparents. The children were fairly disconnected from he world thanks to the lack of available internet, and television watching never seemed to have occurred, so maybe there was a local search, but everyone was so boxed-in at the farmhouse that they didn’t hear about it.
It’s very, very strange that the kids never saw photographs of their real grandparents since the rift turned out to be fairly minor and petty. Even if their mother didn’t share this information, it seems weird that such connected and technologically savvy kids wouldn’t have Googled their grandparents possibly seen photographs of them on their counseling website. The mother did seem pretty petty and wrapped up in her own pain and drama, so it’s not improbable that she would have kept photographs from them. It’s also possible that there was no trace of the grandparents’ photos online. People do cut off contact with their family members quite a bit.
Some critics of the film take issue with how it deals with issues surrounding aging and mental health. The argument is that it demonizes some of the very real and unpleasant sides of growing older, and stigmatizes mental illness, reducing it to acts of fear and monstrosity.
As the grandparents’ activities become increasingly odd, it’s explained to the children that they simply suffer from a host of “old people” problems. Pop Pop attributes Nana’s night-time vomiting and wall-scratching to the fact that older people “just get sick.” When pressed, he mentions “sundowning,” a symptom often present in Alzheimer’s disease. While sundowning does exist, it doesn’t present in the way it does for Nana, but it does involve being confused about the distinction between waking reality and dreams.
Pop Pop’s weird behaviors involve incontinence, which he deals with by putting his dirty diapers in the shed, and constantly getting dressed for a costume party that’s never going to happen. His ritualistic imaginary costume party at first appears to be due to signs of dementia, a condition Nana also seems to be suffering from, but it could be a delusion he’s had for years. Pop Pop also engages in suicidal behaviors: towards the end he’s found in the barn with his mouth around a shotgun.
We are scared, we are scared of ourselves and our own physical and mental declines (including mental illness,) and this film nudged us, at times daring the young teen inside us all if we were going to squirm or be more mature about the situations being handed to us. The Visit borders on a line of insensitivy, but at this time I don’t think it’s an inappropriate film, and it’s definitely not inappropriate subject matter for a thriller. The Sideways Light is a recent independent film that also combines spooks and dementia in a more serious, psychologically straining way.
What do you think? Was the “twist” satisfying for you? Was the subject matter disrespectful or stigmatizing?