Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
It seems as predictable as a third act twist at this point to underline the meteoric rise and disastrous fall of M. Night Shyamalan's career, but it bears repeating when it comes to his latest low-budget horror-thriller The Visit. Once hailed as the next Spielberg/ Hitchcock after critically lauded box office hits The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs; Shyamalan's magical bubble began to crack after mixed reactions to The Village, followed by the career-suicide trifecta of Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. There was also the Will Smith nepotism vehicle After Earth, which came and went without many even realizing Shyamalan's involvement; but by that juncture, he was already six feet deep in Hollywood hell. Superficially, The Visit can be seen as a return to his roots after a few big-budget failures, but there's also been a shift in temperament. The Shyamalan of a decade ago would never dare make a found footage picture with a reduced budget and mostly unknown actors, but the careening fall from grace has actually mellowed his ego. Known as a pretentious filmmaker who trusts his instincts against better judgement, his latest venture sees him poking fun at the formula he in some senses pioneered following The Sixth Sense, but it's questionable how far he intends the satirical bent to go.
For someone who attempted to make blowing wind scary in The Happening and mythical beings living underneath apartment swimming pools enthralling in Lady in the Water, it comes as little surprise that this time he's essentially making a horror-comedy about senility. The story follows two teenagers, Rebecca and Tyler Jamison (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, respectively) as they travel to visit their grandparents whom they've never met. Rebecca is a budding documentary filmmaker, and therefore decides to make a movie about their experiences (hence the faux-doc/ found footage angle), while the single mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn) stays behind while gallivanting around on a Caribbean cruise with a younger man. Meanwhile, the grandparents, Doris (Deanna Dunagan) and John (Peter McRobbie) have been estranged from Paula since she was a teenager after an argument concerning her former husband, giving the grandchildren's sojourn to the country home a sense of uncertainty.
The biggest hurdle to overcome right from the start is why Paula, who hasn't really spoken or seen her parents in well over a decade, would allow her children to go by themselves on this little adventure. No mother in her situation would do this, but of course, the audience must buy into such behavior in order to swallow where the story eventually goes. Once Nana and Pop Pop start exhibiting strange behavior; bizarre bouts of cackling laughter, dressing up for nonexistent costume parties, clawing at the walls in the dead of night, it's clear that all is not well on the Midwestern front and that, predictably, Shyamalan is up to something here. For a while, the film gets away with a tone straddling the line between satire and creeping unease. Rebecca's precious babbling about mis en scene, framing, and emotionally manipulating devices in the doc she's working on carries with it a winking acknowledgement of Shyamalan's own worst instincts, and often characters will break into heightened monologues that feel like intentional parodies of dialogue from the director's back catalog. What cannot be tolerated, no matter how self-aware of it's badness the filmmaker may be, is Tyler's incessant hip-hop rapping sessions, which are interspersed throughout and threaten to derail the film completely. Shyamalan seems to think that having poor Mr. Oxenbould break out into impromptu raps is comedy gold, and making pop-culture references to Tyler The Creator doesn't help further his case.
Another curious move from a directing standpoint is the collaboration between Shyamalan's rigid formalism and the kitchen-sink B-movie format of producer Jason Blum (of Paranormal Activity fame). There doesn't seem to be any reason, aside from budget restrictions, for The Visit to be structured from the found footage angle. Sure, it allows Shyamalan to get away with shrewd camera placement and cleaner cinematography than most movies of this kind due to the fact that Rebecca is hyper-aware of filmic technique, but the medium doesn't necessarily enhance the story he's telling. There are a few "gotcha" type jump scares and moments where the camera is strategically placed in a room so we get a full view of something creepy occurring (ala Paranormal Activity), but overall, the aesthetic feels arbitrary. From a narrative standpoint, there's also the problem of why these kids take so long to catch onto how strange Nana and Pop Pop are behaving; seemingly casting it off as "old people problems" before coming to the realization that danger lurks around the corner. Of course, this is in keeping with horror movie tropes, from which Shyamalan shamelessly cribs during the film's anticlimactic third act. There is, of course, a veritable twist, but it's not the kind of peel back the curtain revelation found in some of his earlier films, but something which nevertheless takes things into more sinister territory. Such a turn would have been fine if Shyamalan hadn't given off the impression that he was making a kind of comic meta-commentary on genre movies for the first two thirds, only to descend into cheap shock tactics for the finale. If you've ever wanted to see a character literally rub his face in senior citizen feces, here's your chance.
The Visit isn't a bonafide disaster on the level of The Happening; which, for the record, has a cult-ready vibe of unintentional hilarity. However, it's strengths (atmospheric sound design, cunning performances from Dunagan and McRobbie, a few moments of nominal tension and humor) are undone by Shyamalan's need to overemphasis the structure of his narrative around monologues and attempts at heartfelt character moments. Such devices, especially two cringe-inducing post finale scenes, attempt to bring the emotional pathology of the characters full circle, but instead further reinforce Shyamalan's inability to nail a consistent tone.