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Impatient eyes 

M. Night Shyamalan returns to horror in 'The Visit.'

SUNDOWNING: Deanna Dunagan stars as a creepy grandmother in "The Visit."
  • SUNDOWNING: Deanna Dunagan stars as a creepy grandmother in "The Visit."

Rebecca and Tyler's mother hasn't seen her own parents since she was a teenager, when she ran away from home one night with a substitute teacher. There was a fight, perhaps — she prefers not to talk about it. Now she and her new boyfriend are going away on a cruise and Rebecca and Tyler will be staying with their grandparents, whom they've never met. They'll take a train out to the country, beyond the reach of mobile data plans, to the not-quite backwoods. Farmland, with occasional snow. It's an experiment. Maybe they'll get along, maybe their mother can rebuild a relationship with her parents if things go well. Anything is possible.

Rebecca is an aspiring filmmaker. She plans to make an "Oscar-winning documentary" about the family drama, and so will be documenting the visit extensively. She has artistic ambitions, refers to "visual tension" and to the viewer's curiosity about "what's beyond the frame." She sees the poetry in an empty swing at dusk. Tyler is antic and wild and likes to freestyle rap, anachronistically. He thinks his sister's cinematic approach is a little feigned — too pretentious — though he becomes a co-director, with a camera of his own. He is irrepressible and cocky and juvenile, but also debilitatingly germaphobic. Rebecca, too, can be neurotic. For instance, she has an aversion to mirrors.

And their grandparents? They're possibly a little quiet, a little peculiar. Chalk it up to age or geographic isolation. "He's a country guy; all he does is chop wood," Rebecca says of her sturdy, silent grandfather. Of their grandmother's erratic behavior, they are satisfied for a while with the diagnosis they are given, which is a form of mild dementia known as "sundowning" — confusion, restlessness, psychological oddities triggered by the night. Everything has an explanation here, even the mold in the basement. Even the locked barn-house door. Even the muddy water in the well.

"The Visit" is the 11th film directed by M. Night Shyamalan, whose star has plummeted since the days when he was pegged as a new generation's Hitchcock. It happened relatively suddenly in around 2004 or 2005, maybe 2006 if you didn't read the newspaper. As though the entire film-viewing public reversed its opinion on his work en masse, deciding it was all too formulaic and passé when you really thought about it. For a decade now, critical celebration of his work has been confined largely to the inscrutable French. He has that in common with Jerry Lewis.

The most noticeable departure of "The Visit" is that Shyamalan has abandoned classic cinematic style for the fractured first-person of "The Blair Witch Project" or "Paranormal Activity." Here the spectator must perform double duty: We are as curious about and conscious of what's behind the camera as we are about what's in front of it. The whole filmmaking artifice — the fourth wall, whatever — becomes part of our purview. This can be liberating, potentially. It can give the impression of wild improvisation, rather than closely followed sheet music. Things can seem visceral and up close and fragile. Things can go wrong. Of her unfaithful husband, the mother early on says he had an "impatient eye," and the same could be said of Shyamalan, who shakes and pummels and punishes the camera. "No one gives a crap about cinematic standards," as Tyler puts it. "It's not the 1800s."

As to whether or not the film marks a "triumphant return to form" for the director — and critics can't resist narratives like this — that depends very much on whether you think Shyamalan ever had a successful form to return to. "Signs" and "The Village" both painted memorable portraits of dread in dark blues and greens, but their thematic algebra seemed too simple on reflection. It was all too easy. The "swing away" climax of "Signs," especially, was such a tragic screenwriting miscalculation that I still think about it from time to time: It was instructive in its badness. But "The Visit" never really builds enough affective momentum or "visual tension" (to use Rebecca's phrase) for it to be undermined by a last-minute sleight of hand. And there is a last-minute sleight of hand. The movie is genuinely and frequently revolting, but in an all-too-familiar, even interchangeable way. It feels minor.

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