It seems almost redundant at this point to say that the career of M. Night Shyamalan went from promising to dire in a little under a decade. The temptation to say that he basically got lucky and made a really good film is strong, but his eye as a director makes such a statement a tad reductive. I think the problem with M. Night Shyamalan is two-fold. First, he was given too much freedom too quickly and squandered his potential by no longer having anyone question his rather poor decision making abilities. Second, and much more crucially, the loudest buzz surrounding the phenomenon that sprung up around his breakout hit The Sixth Sense had everything to do with the film's twist. The twist ending became Shyamalan's crutch and turned him, not undeservingly, into something of a punchline.
For Shyamalan's new film The Visit, all of the elements that made him successful and eventually turned him into an irrelevant joke are in play, with the writer/director back in the comfort and familiarity of jump scares, twist endings, and a thoroughly misplaced sense of humor. If The Visit is successful at all, it's only in being better than the abysmal films that led to its director's undoing: The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. For my money, the film unravels in its opening minutes and never gains solid footing, let alone regains it. The film opens in faux documentary style, a conceit I was sure the film would drop after several minutes, but alas it doesn’t, marking Shyamalan’s first foray into found footage-esque filmmaking.
The much more immediate problem with the first few minutes is the comically absurd amount of expository dialogue, a dire and almost heartbreaking indication that Shyamalan's myriad problems as a writer are nowhere close to being fixed. Fifteen year old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) fancies herself an amateur documentarian, and is getting ready to document her first visit to meet her mother’s parents. Her mother (Kathryn Hahn) is going on a cruise with her new boyfriend and is sending Becca and her twelve year old brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) to meet her estranged parents for the first time by herself. Mom hasn’t seen her parents in fifteen years, and explains just enough of the story behind the estrangement to let the audience know that crucial bits of information will only be revealed along with the twist, a hack plot device if there ever was one.
Tyler and Becca arrive at their grandparents’ house and meet Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) for the first time, but almost instantly realize that something is not right with them. Talking to their Mom on Skype—an alternate title for this film could have been Even Found Footage Films Have Product Placement—they chalk the strange behavior up to the grandparents simply being old. A series of borderline absurd plot conveniences, or rather inconveniences, foreshadow the danger to come, and the film vacillates wildly between absurd comedy involving Tyler’s incessant rapping and bargain basement horror jump scare techniques. The film feels like it’s struggling to find an identity and just grasping wildly at whatever’s within its reach.
And so the film plods along, light on incident but heavy on this air of "just wait until you see what a killer twist we've got in store." The film's smug factor is so high that it wouldn't have seemed out of place for Shyamalan to stroll through the frame every few minutes with a wry smile on his face and his fingers tented like Mr. Burns. When the reveal finally—mercifully—comes, the film begins picking up steam basically just in time for the credits to start rolling. Had the asinine twist not been so absurdly telegraphed in the film's opening minutes and were the tone of the film not bordering on smug braggadocio, it might have been an enjoyable romp that balances the terrors of getting old with the paranoia youth has always harbored toward the elderly. Instead it's roughly as entertaining as wringing a secret out of a child, and it leaves you feeling just as good about yourself.
There is some temptation to lay this mess at the feet of one of its producers, Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions label. Of the ten found footage films released already in 2015 alone, his production house has been responsible for four of them, which is a staggering number of productions for what was once considered a sub genre. Blum clearly favors the found footage film for a number of reasons, all of which come back to how cheaply it allows him to make a film and, in turn, how large the profit margin becomes as a result. Frankly, the genre hamstrings directors, writers, and actors, and even when it succeeds, it's almost always creaky and stilted enough to make one wish they hadn't hung the whole film on the conceit in the first place.
Shyamalan is no longer a crafty enough filmmaker to bend the genre to his will, and the rules of found footage filmmaking more or less overwhelm whatever bits of personal flair he hopes to bring to the film. Watching a Shyamalan film these days is not unlike watching someone drown in six inches of water. You can’t believe it’s possible, yet he’s managed to lull you into such a sense of complacency that there’s no point in telling him he’s essentially doing this to himself. He’s also managed to lose his touch with young actors. There was a time when some publications were labeling him the next Spielberg, namely because of his ability to wring such terrific performances out of young actors. That’s no longer the case and his last three films are all the proof of that one would need. It’s as if Shyamalan was replaced by a Bizarro version of himself who can no longer be counted on to do the one or two things he made a name for himself doing.
Don’t get me wrong, The Visit is not the worst movie ever made, or even the worst movie Shyamalan has made. It’s just so hopelessly asinine and woefully undercooked that it’s a wonder it was made by an Oscar-nominated director and not some wet behind the ears film school grad looking to make a name for himself by ripping off that director. There’s little for me to recommend beyond the final fifteen minutes or so, which are by far the best part of the film, save a moralizing coda that’s as effective as Shyamalan just showing up on screen and saying, “Do you get it?” Yes, Night, we get it. We just don’t care anymore.
GO Rating: 2/5
[Photos via Coming Soon]