Editor’s Notes: The Visit is out in wide theatrical release this Friday, September 11th.
Upon entrance into my screening for The Visit, I spoke with someone who already viewed the film at an earlier screening. “I hope you like it…it’s different,” she said. I wondered if “different” was code for something else, and on the evidence of the film itself, I realize now that “different” means “this doesn’t feel like a real movie and it makes me so uncomfortable that I laughed when I was supposed to be frightened.”
. . .a quick and dirty spook-and-shock flick budgeted at $5 million and formatted as a kinda-sorta found footage piece, or a quasi-mock documentary.
I agree with that assessment. It makes sense. And that’s not an unusual response to a film by – bang the gong – M. Night Shyamalan. Yeah, I was surprised he still has a career, too. I mean, The Happening was enough to qualify for a blacklisting all on its own, but when you consider that he followed it up with The Last Airbender and After Earth, the only conclusion is that Shyamalan is the luckiest filmmaker in the biz.
If anything positive has resulted from M. Night’s recent failures – and by “recent,” I mean every film he’s made in the last 12 years – it may be that he has…finally, at long last…attempted to recalibrate, scale back, pivot from the whole “massively budgeted self-aggrandizing spectacle” mold. Indeed, The Visit is a success based on that criterion; it’s a quick and dirty spook-and-shock flick budgeted at $5 million and formatted as a kinda-sorta found footage piece, or a quasi-mock documentary. It’s hard to pin down the film’s precise formal properties, though, since Shyamalan seems to break his own rules from one scene to the next.
. . .the kids are really good, in roles that require them to carry the film at every turn, in every scene.
The conceit is simple: two siblings (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) travel to their grandparents’ house with cameras in tow, apparently in an attempt to document where and how their mother (Kathryn Hahn) grew up. As the film’s promotional materials indicate, the grandparents (veteran character actors Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) quickly prove to be sinister and insane. Are they demonic? Are they possessed? Or are they just cray-cray? Either way, all this insanity is captured – conveniently and pristinely – on the kids’ cheap camcorders, though the image quality is so perfectly cinematic that it feels like these kids are toting a RED One while they lurk through fields and barns and basements as their creepy elders shout, stomp, and stalk them.
Also remarkable is how these youngsters are so dedicated to their craft that they keep the cameras on their person even when in utmost peril, at moments when dropping the camera and picking up a weapon would surely make more sense. And all the shaky camera ruffling and behind-the-scenes conversations would make it seem like this is a found footage movie, but what of the frequently clean and purposeful edits? I mean, there are fade outs and dissolves, for crying out loud. This conceit is abandoned entirely by the end, which sheds the white-knuckle aspect for some out-of-left-field sappy moralizing, and we’re reminded that, though this is a different song, it’s the same conductor. But of course, formalistic trappings might only be distracting to a grizzled old critic like me, and even if M. Night isn’t willing to sacrifice surface polish for edgy realism, he does deserve credit for at least attempting to play in smaller, more intimate territory.
And the kids are really good, in roles that require them to carry the film at every turn, in every scene. Humor occasionally shines through – sometimes intentionally, other times accidentally. So…it’s “different,” which for M. Night is kind of a good thing. Would it be damning with faint praise to say that The Visit is Shyamalan’s most tolerable film in over a decade by virtue of the fact that it sheds some of his usual pretense and isn’t entirely dripping in self-importance?
Don’t answer that.
Even if M. Night isn’t willing to sacrifice surface polish for edgy realism, he does deserve credit for at least attempting to play in smaller, more intimate territory.