THEATRICAL REVIEW: The Visit
Produced by: Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum, M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Edited by: Luke Franco Ciarrocchi
Cinematography by: Maryse Alberti
Music by: Paul Cantelon
Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
M. Night Shyamalan – the guy’s name has basically become synonymous with “crappy movie with a twist ending.” The filmmaker was once purported to be “the next Steven Spielberg” when he released his first film, The Sixth Sense, and people continued to call him a master of suspense with the release of his second, Unbreakable. There was a brief time when Shyamalan’s name in the credits was reason enough to go flock to the theatre and see his latest work, but something quickly changed in the public consciousness, it seemed. It seemed to start at a different time for everyone. For some, it was his alien invasion film Signs, with its improbably prophetic twist reveal. For others, it was The Village, which seemed to promise one movie in the trailers and delivered something completely different and ultimately disappointing with the end product. Some were even willing to go as far as The Lady in the Water, but others even took issue with Unbreakable, while others claim that one’s still superior to his first.
I’ve seen almost all of Shyamalan’s films, and I actually know enough about the guy to know that he was making bad, cloying films long before he ever rose to stardom, because while his actual first film was Praying with Anger – a little seen 1992 film shown mostly at festivals – his first widely released film was Wide Awake, a maudlin and forgotten film (featuring Rosie O’Donnell as a nun!) in which a Catholic schoolboy tries to find God in the aftermath of his beloved grandfather’s death. It, too, got fairly negative-leaning mixed reviews, but the fact that Wide Awake was made prior to what is, in my opinion, his masterpiece, The Sixth Sense, is proof that Shyamalan is capable of bouncing back from a slump. Everyone has been holding on to hope for the director to “return to form” still, after all these years. It didn’t happen with The Happening, nor The Last Airbender, nor Devil (which he did not direct, but definitely wrote), nor After Earth (which some say was more of a Will Smith project than Shyamalan’s), but would it possibly happen if he was given a much smaller budget and worked within the tired but heretofore unexplored-by-him found footage style?
That’s pretty much what The Visit is, though I guess it’s more accurately described as a mockumentary, with a pretentious teenage girl, Rebecca, directing the footage with the assistance of her younger brother, Tyler. They are heading to their estranged grandparents’ home to meet them for the first time, and Rebecca wants to document the experience and hopefully get them to talk about the incident that happened years ago, which resulted in her mother never speaking to them again. While there, however, Rebecca and Tyler quickly begin to notice their grandparents behave very strangely. They are incredibly secretive, particularly regarding details the incident, but also regarding the reasons for their admitted strange behaviors. Much of it is chalked up to their age, but when things begin to take a turn from the strange to terrifying, it’s not long before the focus of the documentary begins to shift from reconciliation to figuring out what the hell is going on with Nana and Pop-pop.
The Visit is an incredibly strange film. That is surely going to be the first thing you will notice about it. The tone of the movie is all over the place, and while you may not get it from the trailers, there’s actually quite a bit of humor throughout the movie – intentional humor – with most of it coming at the expense of the strange and often disgusting behaviors of the elders. I didn’t expect that, and at first I didn’t like it, but the more I watched the film, the more I actually appreciated the blatantly bizarre tone that it gives this movie. It’s not meta, as the film has no commentary on genre or stylistic tropes, but it’s certainly very self-aware about its goofiness, and it invites you to come along with it in laughing at itself. It’s unexpected from a director more famous for taking himself too seriously, and it’s most likely a conscious effort on his part to dispel those accusations. Is it successful? Eeeeehhh… not entirely. But it’s definitely a welcome change of pace and something I’d like to see the director explore more in future projects.
There are other notable flaws, too. Shyamalan continues in encouraging his actors to perform strangely affected expository dialogue, having them express their feelings in words rather than emotions and, in one instance, just outright having a character very nearly recite the moral of the story to the audience’s faces. The fake documentary gimmick also doesn’t work for about 50% of the time. Shyamalan chooses camera angles that couldn’t possibly have been filmed by the characters the way they are holding the camera, so it’s easy to become strangely aware of the staging, where actors are basically just holding the sides of the lens while a real professional operates it to ensure the shot gets everything perfect rather than creating the illusion of amateur footage. It’s acceptable in the shots Rebecca and Tyler are intending to stage, such as establishing shots and interviews, but when characters are running, struggling, or holding the camera out in front of themselves and addressing their audience, I couldn’t help but think of how gnarled their hands would look the way they’re supposed to be holding the camera. This is one instance where sloppy shaky cam would have been an acceptable stylistic choice.
The acting is mostly decent, however, and most of the flaws can likely be attributed to the usual quirks we’ve seen in Shyamalan’s previous movies in regards to line delivery and characterization. Olivia DeJonge might come off as incredibly annoying as Rebecca, but as a young, awkward girl who is trying to sound way smarter and artistic than she is, I understood what was being attempted, and they mostly got it. Ed Oxenbould is also a bit pigeonholed into the comic relief role as Tyler, the smart-alecky younger brother with [sigh] a penchant for freestyle rapping about his life, because every young Shyamalan child from Signs onward needs a silly precocious gimmick. He’s also a germophobe, though the movie kind of forgets about that for a while until the very end when it’s forcibly reintroduced to remind us that this is one of the things he will overcome in becoming a more developed character. Oxenbould is a fairly natural, believable child actor, at least, and he makes the most of what he’s given and clearly having fun. I even laughed at him a few times. Kathryn Hahn’s also in there as their mother, and though her dialogue is the most atrocious of the bunch, there’s thankfully not much for her to do beyond the Skype-assisted check-ups now and then. The highlights of the movie, however, are the unnerving and oftentimes amusing manic performances of Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie as the elderly couple, with Dunagan in particular carrying the movie, alternating between sweet but confused old lady and a disturbed creature of the night, so to speak.
All that being said, even with the decent performances, nothing saves the movie more than the completely deranged, out of nowhere climax Shyamalan throws his audience. It’s such a bizarre and even uncomfortably comical left turn that, while you might see the details of the twist coming thanks to heavy-handed foreshadowing (hey, like The Village), the way in which it unfolds is by far the most interesting aspect of it, and it’s also the one area of the film where it feels like the cast as a whole was finally allowed to cut loose and have some fun with their roles.
The Visit is by no means Shyamalan’s greatest film, and I wouldn’t even necessarily call it a return to form as some have, but for the last act of the film alone, I’m more than willing to say that whatever boredom you might have slipped into during the preceding portions will be quickly forgotten thanks to Shyamalan’s willingness to go so far. If The Sixth Sense through approximately 4/5 of the way through Signs is being considered “return to form,” then, no, this movie is most certainly not a return to that form. But, if you’re anything like myself and were able to go back and watch The Village again after several years and found that you somehow were able to appreciate it for what it did right, in spite of all of its serious flaws, then you could do worse than give The Visit a chance, as well.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2.5 / 5