Of course there is a twist in M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie The Visit. There are plenty of good reviews of The Visit out there that sum up my feelings, but, briefly: it’s good, not M. Night’s best, horror film fans ought to see it.
What I want to review here is not the movie but the twist itself, because it’s one of the most complex that a mass-market film has pulled off in recent memory. Shyamalan accomplished this in three steps:
- The marketing campaign
- The story and tone of the first two acts of the movie
- The actual third act twist
This should go without saying, but I am about to utterly, hopelessly spoil The Visit. If that’s something that will bother you, perhaps you should try something else?
Step One: “There’s Something Wrong with Nana and Pop Pop”
The marketing for The Visit was the most important element in constructing the architecture for the twist. It all starts with the trailer.
The key point of the trailer is Becca’s plea to her mom: “there’s something wrong with Nana and Pop Pop”. Oh yes, there’s something wrong with Nana and Pop Pop — did you see her scurrying after Becca in what must be an evidence dungeon? Unraveling that mystery will surely be the plot of the movie. Are they aliens? Pod people? Possessed? Perhaps they are the last real people in a town occupied by supernatural forces? What devilry is at play here and how spooky can M. Night Shayamalan make it?
All of the marketing was pitched at this level. The Visit is a straight up horror movie, folks, listed with the likes of Insidious and Sinister. Old people doing weird things are scary. Blood-covered knick knacks and threatening cookiesare odd and make you feel weird. Horror movie. Got it.
Step Two: “Swerve, Girl”
Being primed with this high-octane marketing, I was prepared for some nightmare fuel. What I got was a pretty charming, wistful and at times uproariously funny dramedy… at least for the first hour and ten minutes.
Tyler (played by Ed Oxenbould) is a pretty typical thirteen year-old boy, although he is an amateur rapper and shows off his skills on no less than three occasions, impressing even Nana and Pop Pop (played by Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan). Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is a cinematic auteur of the highest, or at least most pretentious, order, with qualities reminiscent of the heroine of another found footage film.
With Becca, Shyamalan has found more than adequate shoulders for this found footage conceit. Becca and Tyler’s mother, Paula (played wonderfully by Kathryn Hahn), ran out on her parents at nineteen to be with their biological father and has been estranged from them ever since. Their dad subsequently left them for a barista in Palo Alto and the family has never recovered. Finally, after all these years, Paula’s folks want to see their grandchildren, even if there seems to be no room for rapprochement with Paula herself.
Becca decides to stretch her directorial skills by documenting the visit and trying to engineer “the elixir”: a moment of catharsis and forgiveness that will repair the relationship between Paula and her parents and bring the family back together again. And her naive attempts at Sarah Koenig-esque interview set-ups and use of words like “focal length” and mise-en-scene come off simultaneously annoying and endearing. We don’t know what it was that so fundamentally broke the relationship between Paula and her parents — Nana breaks into hysterics every time Becca brings up any specific moments from her past — and Becca has made it her mission to try to discover it and put right what once went wrong.
This ninety degree swerve from the marketing seems like it must be the twist. A more subtle and interesting twist than Shyamalan has ever constructed before. And for the first two acts, it is. When placed in their proper context, most of the shots from the trailer are either funny or sad, but most are not actually all that scary. Yes, Nana chases Becca under the house, but it’s actually hide and seek. Yes, Becca and Tyler are supposed to stay in their room at night, but it’s because Nana has a sleep walking condition. And yes, the stove thing happens, but the way it plays out is perhaps unnerving but it is definitely not scary.
This subversion of expectations was a brilliant play on its own — but it also serves as misdirection. Once you’re bought into the movie, you follow Becca and Tyler trying to understand Nana and Pop Pop, their mother and the increasingly unusual events that occur at their grandparent’s farm.
The movie goes out of its way to take us down every imaginable explanation before it finally gives away the big secret. Is Nana afflicted with a degenerative mental condition? Is Pop Pop hiding something in the shed? Are they just lonely old people experiencing normal alienation from the world? Is there a white monster with yellow eyes that Pop Pop saw at work that is still haunting them? Whatever it is, it definitely has something to do with that well, right…
Whatever is wrong with Nana and Pop Pop comes to a head when Nana discovers a camera Becca and Tyler planted to see what’s going on at night. This somehow triggers Nana and she grabs a kitchen knife and unsuccessfully tries to break into Becca and Tyler’s room. The kids see this footage and decide that this is too much for them and they have to leave early, although Becca does finally walk Nana through giving her the “elixir” by constructing a make believe story that Nana can fill in with details. It’s the emotional center of the movie as Becca gets Nana to finally forgive Paula. It really seems like there shouldn’t be much more movie left, except for the fact that there’s over twenty minutes remaining.
Step Three: “They’re Hiding Something”
The trailer did give away a key element of the twist: did you notice that the webcam on Becca and Tyler’s computer is covered with something in some of the shots?
Nana “accidentally” covered it with adhesive oven cleaner the day the kids arrived. Becca brushed it off as one of the numerous benign gerontological quirks of Nana and Pop Pop that Tyler found more troubling. Until the last twenty minutes of the movie, Paula couldn’t see her kids or her parents. Becca managed to scrub the webcam clean Friday morning after she and Tyler decided to leave early. Upon finally seeing them, Paula reveals exactly what’s wrong with Nana and Pop Pop: she doesn’t recognize them.
At last, months of marketing and an hour and ten minutes of at times funny, at time tense plot come together. The audience feels the same sinking feeling that Becca, Tyler and Paula feel when it all clicks into place. A man in my theater summed it up perfectly:
“Holy shit! They’re not their grandparents!”
Yes, “Nana” and “Pop Pop” are mental patients from the facility that Becca and Tyler’s real grandparents volunteered at. They murdered the real grandparents, set up shop on the farm and have been masquerading as them the whole time. Now, every single scene, every interaction, every word that “Nana” and “Pop Pop” uttered in the first seventy minutes is cast in a wholly new and deeply disturbing light. The final twenty minutes contains its own disturbing moments and genuine horror as Becca and Tyler have to wait for their mother and the police to show up at the remote farm house while they are forced to play Yahtzee with two deranged strangers.
The genius of this set up is the misdirection. Since the audience was expecting a horror movie and got a dramedy, our minds were totally on board for believing any and all explanations for the odd behavior of Nana and Pop Pop. This is one of the few times when the trailer definitely did not spoil the movie, but was central to making the twist work. Going in cold with only the knowledge that this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, you might be suspicious of Nana and Pop Pop from the beginning since you are no doubt expecting a twist. Setting us up with the horror-soaked trailer and marketing campaign and then immediately pulling the rug out with the charming and believable performances and touching story of family reconciliation was masterful and made the actual twist much more satisfying.
As I said, this is not M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie, nor is it the best horror movie of the year. But it is an absolutely fun ride and a return to form for Shyamalan after so many recent missteps. He plays his audience like an instrument from the marketing to the story all the way through to the end credits. Which you should watch as they contain a rap summary of the events of the film from Tyler (aka T Diamond Stylus). I told you I was going to spoil everything, didn’t I?