Gather around, all ye children, and join me at the virtual bonfire, ones and zeroes crackling and sparking in the autumn breeze, as I recount another tale brought to us by Uncle Shyamalan. It is a tale of horrible, weird old people, and precocious young ones, stuck together in a rural farmhouse. It is a story that will leave no head unscratched, no heart unpoked, and no surprises experienced. Yes, if you deign to sit and listen, do be aware you will encounter that dread artifact of reviewerdom, the spoiler; yet rest assured, it will make no difference. Go, see this film regardless, as you will sit, a seeming amnesiac. I guarantee you will not feel a thing one way or the other. Yes, this is supposedly what Shyamalan was put on our dear earth to do: provide experiences that are so fragile they will be destroyed, like a crystalline cathedral, composed of dried hummingbird saliva, placed at the apex of a volcano at the onset of a typhoon, if one gives utterance to the “secret” they contain. The problem, as anyone who has sampled his concoctions will verify, is that Shyamalan’s so easily spoiled “secrets” are often self-evident, dumb, or mind-boggling in their tedium and contrivance. (They are mere shifts of the frame, not ontological earthquakes). His reputation having been built on The Sixth Sense, it has been all downhill from there; indeed, that hill only looks like a mountain from the bottom of the chasm he’s been mining ever since. Yes, I will admit I enjoyed The Village, although I swear I cannot remember if its twist had any artistic merit or not; indeed, I can’t remember much at all about that film, except the general contours of the plot (that is, the twist). And I have not sampled all of Mr. Shyamalan’s rather regularly proffered elixirs, but I can attest that Unbreakable, The Happening, and now The Visit all rank among the most profoundly mindless and artless films of my now rather less than brief existence. But is that a pan?
So what have we here? If you’ve seen the trailer, which looked more like a comedy than a thriller, you were perhaps intrigued as to how our director could knit such seemingly ludicrous moments into an afghan of terror. The short answer, of course, is that he doesn’t. No surprise there, but what does continually surprise me is that Shyamalan somehow manages to keep the movie on track, and moving forward, and gives the characters some depth, despite what could be called, at best, the “concept” that gives the movie its animating spark (or at least animated it some time ago in his adman’s brow). We have a pair of kids, charming if a bit overly verbose, who live with their single Wal-Mart employee Mom (Kathryn Hahn). Mom is estranged from her own parents over a never-to-be-revealed altercation, and the kids are estranged from their Dad over Dad’s own disappearing act. This family steeped in multi-generational trauma splits apart, amoeba-like, yet again, as Mom goes on a Caribbean cruise she really deserves with her new boyfriend, and the kids go to some unspecified New Englandish area to stay with their estranged grandparents. Said grandparents are now volunteer counselors at a mental hospital. (Hmm). The kids have never, ever seen them before, not even in photographs. (Hmmmmmmmm). Mom has prepped them, with her teasing tale, to expect some drama. So, the kids arrive, and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a little weird to say the least. Nana is a good cook, but seems a bit uneasy and fragile. Her hobbies include chasing the kids through the crawlspaces under the house, wandering the abode during the evening hours vomiting, along with moaning, skipping, running, and clawing, also after dark, and often stark naked. Pop Pop, the more communicative of the two, is often absent, out and about on the farm, but when the kids do track him down, he is frequently cleaning his shotgun with his mouth, getting dressed for parties that existed, if ever, decades ago, stacking his used Depends in a pyramid in the shed, or, in the finale, playing Yahtzee like a man possessed. The kids are also quite a pair, but a bit more contained. The older one, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), is the spearhead of this campaign of familial bonding, mostly because she wants to sort out what happened back in the day and get Nana to confess her love for Mom on camera. This is not just for posterity, but because Becca is also a budding documentarian, and so records the entire trip on one of two cameras. The other camera is often in the hands of her younger brother, an aspiring rapper named T-Diamond Stylus (Ed Oxenbould), also known as Tyler, who suffers from microbial phobial OCD (at key moments). Thus the conceit of the film – all the footage we see is part of this documentary, shot on one of the two cameras, almost always held by either Becca or Tyler. The kids spend most of the film trying to alternately bond with and investigate Nana and Pop Pop. What’s in the shed? Poop diapers. What’s at the bottom of the well? Water. What’s in the basement? Mold (or so we are told). A few times, Becca tries to get Nana to grace her with an interview, revealing on camera what went wrong with Mom, and it becomes crystal clear that Nana has firm limits, and wants her questions screened in advance. Result of not doing so? Nana starts to spaz, froth at the mouth, twist and shout. For a week the visit goes on, with Nana getting weirder as the days go by, Pop Pop getting more morose and distant (until Yahtzee, that is), and, once or twice, strangers popping in to say hi. Somehow Nana and Pop Pop are never around when the nice doctor from the asylum where they volunteer stops in, or the nice lady who Nana and Pop Pop counseled through her rehab, or that other guy who I can’t even remember why he was there. Nope, never around. What could be going on? Is Nana a werewolf? Is Pop Pop some strange cultist? A religious nut? Are they aliens, invaded by body snatchers? (Nana recounts, in lieu of interview, a story about beings from another world who keep people in a deep sleep underwater). Why is Nana seemingly homicidal? (She runs around with a butcher knife, but never commits herself). Why does Pop Pop seem so depressed and confused? According to Mom, it’s because they are old. Nana has Sundowners Syndrome (according to Pop Pop), and Pop Pop has early onset dementia. Or maybe schizophrenia. (Thanks for this great trip, Mom!). Finally, while Skyping their mother and begging her to come get them, they happen to flash the webcam at Nana and Pop Pop powwowing in the side yard, and all is revealed. Duh duh dunnn… “That’s not your grandmother and grandfather!” Nana and Pop Pop are impostors? Oh snap! Guess who recently escaped from the local mental asylum? Guess where the real Nana and Pop Pop are? (Serves those middle class busybodies right for volunteering at an asylum). Once the cat is out of the bag, the kids do their best to play it cool, but eventually Becca winds up locked in a bedroom with Nana, and soon enough locked in mortal combat with her. Tyler is held at bay for just long enough while Pop Pop rubs his dirty Depends in the young’un’s face (sending him into microbial phobial catatonia), but soon enough the kids have fake gramps down and are pulping his head with the fridge door. Mom shows up just as the kids escape, and in the denouement, the reunited family waxes sad over Dad’s abandonment, Mom reveals what happened back in the day (she hit her own mother!), and the kids are encouraged to let go of anger. T-Diamond raps us out.
What always amazes me about Shyamalan is that he can manage such an accumulation of details and then somehow ensure they add up to not one damned thing. As you can probably tell, the film does not work as a thriller. Okay, maybe we don’t care, as we have some very meaty tropes to chew over. There is family trauma and the relationships between the generations. There is the problem of aging, which, in an apparent long con to try to make the twist at the end work its magic, is treated quite seriously by the screenplay. (Uh, just take my word on that one). There is the topic of acting – on the train ride to the grandparents’ house, and upon the visit from the doctor, the kids are regaled with failed actors reciting Shakespeare. (That’s twice in 45 minutes!). There’s grandma’s nudity. There’s her story about aliens, and forced slumber. Shyamalan doesn’t know the difference between a red herring and a real one. And this is what, ultimately, is so frustrating about his work, and so fascinating too, for he is, almost uniquely among contemporary directors, a flummoxed and failed magician. He is not a hack. The camerawork in the film is often quite beautiful and impressionistic. The characters have life, wit, charm, and intelligence. (At least, the children do). The story is overabundant with symbolism. So we keep waiting for the magic to happen. We keep waiting for the threads to connect, even accidentally. We keep waiting for a second level to develop in his films, for the symbols to begin to resonate, for a subtext to emerge, or a supertext to descend. But it never does. Ever. Across all his films, meaning is relegated to plot. The “meaning” is the twist. Yes, in the case of The Visit, there is the boilerplate message of moving on and releasing anger at the end, but it has nothing to do with anything that preceded it. No matter how hard you try to connect the dots in his films, to find some deeper resonance, or even a hoary old hidden message, you end in exhaustion and, often, tears (of laughter). His films are close to conceptual art – or better, stage magic – as practiced by a precocious 13 year old. He comes up with what he considers an amazing concept, the perfect “gotcha” (“What if you woke up as a bedbug and nobody said anything!”) and then extrapolates backwards, sewing distractions along the way. He is obviously intelligent, and talented, so why is his oeuvre so consistently samey? In a way, the thing he resembles most is a contemporary practitioner of the Grand Guignol; his is a theater not of meaning, but of effects. The Grand Guignol, however, was, if not art in the way we normally think of it, at least connected to the world it emerged from (that is, it was often working out, in its nightmare mirror, the fresh anxieties of modernity). Shyamalan does not have that. He is, seemingly, an amateur lacking self-awareness. Strangely, he brings to mind, with his campy theatrics that split the difference between horrible and funny, the films of John Waters (another poo lover, incidentally), the difference being that Waters knows exactly what he is doing, his anti-aesthetic being a political and artistic weapon. Waters is a showman, and knows the point of his tricks. Shyamalan is the only director I can think of whose work is bat-shit bonkers and deeply tedious at the same time. In this way, he is beyond (or is it beneath?) aesthetic evaluation.