How M. Night Shyamalan pulls off a magic trick in The Visit

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The Visit is a highly flawed film, and for much of its running time, I was constantly unsure M. Night Shyamalan knew what he was doing. By its third act, though, many of the problems not only seemed less important, but actually appeared to be an intentional part of Shyamalan’s magic trick. The movie isn’t quite as scary or suspenseful as you would expect, but looking back, I can’t help but marvel at that masterful third act. It’s a true cinematic achievement.

The only possible way we’re going to be able to talk about this is with spoilers, so the rest of this article will contain major spoilers for the ending of The Visit. Seriously, major. If you have any intentions of seeing the movie, turn away now.

Are they gone? Alright, good. Let’s chat.

The basic setup for The Visit is that two kids are going to stay with their grandparents, who they have never met before. That’s because their mother left home 15 years ago, and she hasn’t spoken to them for 15 years. Rebecca is an aspiring filmmaker, and so she decides to record everything as a way of showing her mom how her parents are doing and hopefully getting them to forgive each other.

Watching The Visit, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the three act structure of a magic trick as explained in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. The first part is called “The Pledge,” where the magician (in this case, filmmaker) shows you something ordinary. Here, it’s an ordinary family consisting of a mother and her two children. She’s estranged from her parents, but that’s not too unusual. Everything makes sense thus far.

But as you know if you’ve seen the trailers, something’s not right with the grandparents. All over the marketing we see their borderline demonic behavior, including the grandmother clawing at doors in the middle of the night, laughing to herself, and asking the daughter to get in the oven. This act is “The Turn,” when the filmmaker takes the ordinary and makes it into something extraordinary – in this case, extraordinarily scary. Shyamalan impresses and terrifies us with all their strange behavior, and to quote The Prestige, now we’re looking for the secret. We’re hunting for clues to figure out what’s wrong with them. But we won’t find it because we’re not really looking…

The solution most viewers will immediately think of is that the grandparents are possessed. We’ve seen so many films where people do strange things because they’re under the influence of a demon, or maybe because they’re members of a cult. For a large stretch in the middle of the movie, that’s the audience’s natural assumption. The kids are going to slowly uncover the grandparents secret – maybe they’re Satan worshippers or they’re just innocent people being possessed – and then they’ll have to escape. Yawn.

In fact, Shyamalan intentionally leads us down that path. After all, the grandmother does speak in an eerily stilted way as if not in control of her speech.

Later on, there’s a genius scene when Rebecca is interviewing her grandmother, and she tells this crazy story about aliens. At the end, she assures Rebecca that it’s totally a made up story and definitely isn’t true at all. Oh, great. Nice subtle writing there, Shyamalan. Now the grandparents are obviously aliens, and they’re now going to try to kill the kids for finding out their secret. What a boring twist.

But no, of course that’s not it. Like any good magician, Shyamalan has been pulling off a cinematic slight of hand, making it appear that he was leading you down one path while ensuring that you’d never even consider the real answer. That’s because you weren’t asking the right question.

The question wasn’t “What’s wrong with the grandparents?” because these aren’t even their grandparents. 

In a scene that is a true tour de force of horror filmmaking, the kids speak to their mother over Skype and point the camera towards their grandparents standing outside. You probably forgot about it because it happened so long ago, but the webcam on their computer broke, so the mother has never seen the grandparents until now. Her face turns white and she says, with complete terror, “I want you to listen to me very carefully…those aren’t your grandparents.” She continues, “Is that who you’ve been with this whole time?”

I’m sure there were some viewers out there who predicted this, but for me, my stomach immediately dropped. It’s a tremendous twist precisely because it’s so simple, and Shyamalan has made us believe we know both the question and answer when in fact we didn’t know either. Never did I consider that these couldn’t be the grandparents; I only considered what the grandparents’ secret could be.

From then on, everything becomes far more scary in retrospect. It’s a bit eerie to imagine staying with your grandparents and it turning out there’s something wrong with them. But you know what’s even scarier? Spending a week with people you thought were your grandparents and it turns out they’re complete strangers. Imagine if right now you found out that the person you’ve been living with is an imposter. It’s terrifying to think about and opens you up to so much vulnerability in an instant.

It’s also quite brilliant that Shyamalan never takes things down a supernatural route. That’s obviously what we’d all expect from him, but it’s more frightening than they’re simply two crazy people. No demons. No ghosts. Just escaped mental patients.

The Visit isn’t the year’s greatest horror film, but I will never forget that third act turn. This is the formula that all filmmakers hoping to surprise audiences should follow, and a reminder that at his best, Shyamalan really is a master storyteller.

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