M. Night Shyamalan has become a cautionary tale. By cultivating a reputation as the “twist ending guy,” he signed his career’s death warrant. His gimmick prompts viewers to look at his movies critically and discourages emotional engagement. It also destroys the viewer’s ability to enjoy his movies more than once or twice. Worst of all, for years now, his recalcitrant attitude toward criticism has prevented him from improving.
So the putative wunderkind from 1998 has now become one of Hollywood’s biggest non-reality-TV punchlines. This lesson seems to have finally sunk in, as his newest film, The Visit, seems to have Shyamalan channeling his feelings of abandonment and resentment. In keeping with the film’s message begging its viewers not to hold onto grudges, I found myself surprised that in giving Shyamalan a chance, I discovered he actually made a not-too-shabby film.
In The Visit, recently divorced mom Paula Jamison (Kathryn Hahn) sends her two teenage kids, Rebecca (Olivia DeLonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), to visit their grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie). Paula has remained estranged from them since adolescence, but she respects Rebecca’s wish to form a relationship with them. Rebecca frames this visit as a documentary, taking a video camera to document every moment. Tyler, a pampered 13-year-old who fancies himself a rapper, doesn’t take this—or much of anything—seriously. Both kids quickly find themselves spooked, however, with their grandparents’ increasingly erratic and quirky behavior.
Artistically, Shyamalan hitched his wagon to the current found-footage trend. Almost every shot comes out of either Rebecca’s camera or the one she gives Tyler. This fits with Rebecca’s character as someone of such low self-esteem that the camera acts as her proxy in engaging with the world. But it also becomes an excuse for Shyamalan to continually unload film language. Every time the film displays an intriguing shot, we hear analysis from Rebecca. This habit makes the film condescending, like Shyamalan feels the need to tell us why we should admire his directorial acumen. By trying so hard to preemptively gainsay criticism, he invites it. The condescension becomes compounded when a character explicitly explains the film’s message in the final scene.
Thematically, the film feels like three puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together. The message clearly revolves around coping with abandonment, but the three plot threads don’t really have compatible answers. Paula’s pain stems from her refusal to reconcile with her parents, but the film tries to draw parallels from this to Rebecca’s and Tyler’s father abandoning them. That doesn’t quite fit; they can forgive him, of course, but they have no means to contact him to reconcile. The main plot—Rebecca and Tyler evading their possibly-evil grandparents—also has little to do with the film’s themes or message, especially after the trademark Shyamalan twist. Said twist also relies on a shaky coincidence. Without giving too much away, something happened off-screen shortly before the events of the film, and the kids just happened to decide to visit right at the point where it affected people.
The Visit feels more like an “uncertainty film” than a “horror film.” We just don’t know what to think of these old folks. The film echoes The Sixth Sense with jump scares and disturbing imagery. But the found footage conceit leads to a lot of shots that feel derivative of The Blair Witch Project, including a straight-up rip-off of Heather Donahue’s famous close-up. Shyamalan also copies Kubrick’s use of sudden scene changes to tell time, using cuts to establishing shots as jump scares.
With that said, of all of Shyamalan’s films, this one feels the most like The Sixth Sense. It ably uses his pet themes of family and the destructive nature of resentment. As much as I hate to admit it, the twist actually surprised me at first. Without a big budget, Shyamalan focuses more on emotionality and character. The character material doesn’t always work. In particular, Tyler’s rapping and use of female pop stars as expletives comes off as annoying and sometimes even cringeworthy. But Rebecca’s struggles with self-esteem and desire to help her mother heal feel real.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its acting. DeJonge’s striking performance as a resourceful, tenacious teenager in over her head echoes Ivana Baquero in Pan’s Labyrinth. Oxenbould plays an annoying teenager convincingly; I mean that in the nicest possible way. Hahn shows complete control over her mannerisms as a mother eaten alive by resentment and indecision. She acts like a real human being in a way we rarely see in film. All five main actors look alike in that familial way, which adds believability. They also regularly pepper the film with comic relief, even Dunagan and McRobbie in their ambiguously scary roles. The film often feels boring, but the actors work hard and their efforts help to break the monotony.
The Visit teaches two lessons: First, holding onto anger and grudges will eat you alive. Second, don’t give M. Night Shyamalan too much money, or he’ll forget how to make a good movie.Liked This? Share It!