Review by Erick Barrientos
Trailer and images courtesy of Universal Pictures and www.stayinyourroom.com
At this point, M. Night Shyamalan has basically become a joke used to describe when a movie has a big, but largely predictable and unfulfilling twist. The guy hasn't had a decent movie since Signs (and there have been SEVEN since) and he totally butchered a big screen adaptation of one of my personal favorite series, Avatar: The Last Airbender (the existence of which, henceforth, we shall not ever mention again). After a slew of frankly pretty bad movies, it just seems like the dude can't catch a break. So how does his latest offering, The Visit, stack up against the rest?
The Visit is centered around Becca and Tyler, or T Diamond Stylus, Jamison, and their visit to their estranged grandparents. The children's grandparents get into contact with their mother 15 years after she had a falling out and left them. Their mother hasn't spoken to them since the incident, which somewhat parallels the children’s relationship with their father who left them. The grandparents want to see their grandchildren, so their mother agrees to let the children visit for a week and sends them off on a train to visit Nana and Pop Pop on their farm where, as it is pretty well established in the movie, there aren’t really any cellular networks. Young aspiring filmmaker Becca decides to use this opportunity to create a documentary about her mom’s childhood and relationship, or lack thereof, with her parents. It’s through Becca’s cameras we see everything that happens in the film. Things start normal, but slowly start taking a turn as Nana and Pop Pop start exhibiting strange behavior and the siblings begin to realize something is wrong…
Honestly, there’s a lot of good to talk about in this movie, and it’s been a while since I have been able to say that about an M. Night Shyamalan movie. First and foremost I’d like to praise Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould for their roles as Becca and Tyler. These two really make the film what it is, which is essentially a comedy horror, but not in the same way you would think of something like Shaun of the Dead or Tucker and Dale Vs Evil. The movie has this natural kind of kids-with-cameras-being-kids kind of thing. That being said, the movie is funny, or at least funnier than you’d expect it to be. It’s really Oxenbould who ramps up the comedy in this and it adds to the really uneasy false sense of security, which in turn is extremely effective in making the tense moments even more tense than they would be normally.
That being said, Kathryn Hahn, Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan really round out a great cast. Though McRobbie and Dunagan’s acting as the grandparents might seem odd at times, that’s kind of the point. It's their performances that make something as seemingly innocuous as grandparents and makes them downright creepy. (Then again, some people just find old people creepy in general.) It really is the cast that helps elevate this movie.
The camera work is phenomenal for something that is mostly mockumentary but part found footage. Though, I really wouldn’t call this a found footage film outright, as it is treated very deliberately as a documentary and even presented as such by Becca’s character. She even talks about the art of filmmaking and what shots should mean, which is interesting as a couple of similar shots are used to demonstrate the different meaning of the shot now that the film has progressed and things have taken a turn. There are a lot of really meaningful shots that are well thought out and speak volumes without using dialogue. For example (and this is my favorite example), when they arrive at their grandparents’ farm, Becca points out their mother’s childhood tree swing and says it will be a great opening shot, during the daytime, at the beginning of the trip, only for the same swing to be used in a nighttime shot later in the film once things have really started to go south. It’s kind of subtle, and the second shot is not addressed like the first one, but it’s very effective. A quick note on the use of music in the film, or lack thereof. There is hardly any music in the film that isn’t being played by something that is on camera, and the fact that Shyamalan was able to build tension without using music is something that harkens back to Hitchcock’s The Birds, and it’s great.
The story itself is interesting enough, too. They keep the event that took place between the mother and grandparents shrouded in mystery, but it becomes the focal point of Becca’s documentary, so it doesn’t just feel like it’s thrown by the wayside. This, paired with talk about why they think their father left, gives the film plenty of room for more character development than you would have expected. Some of which comes back later and relatively big ways that, while also feeling a bit forced, feels well thought out.
While I normally feel like saying a movie has a twist is a spoiler, this is M. Night Shyamalan we’re talking about. That being said, this is one of those movies where it’s really hard to talk about any more of the good without totally giving away the movie. Whether you think the twist was predictable or not by the time you reach the end of the movie, it is definitely an interesting thematic change of pace for Shyamalan.
This is one of those movies where you just go to enjoy the ride. Though it tries to impart a message of sorts at the end, it seems to forced in. Yes, it makes sense in context, but it just felt odd. That being said, it definitely was a nice way to round out the film’s presentation as a documentary. But other than that, it doesn’t feel like you walk away really talking about the movie beyond what you thought of the movie in and of itself. Or compared against Shyamalan’s other films. Though I do give it a lot of praise in the above section, these are things I’d mention if someone asked me what I thought about the movie as opposed to walking out of the theater raving about these things.
The pacing in the film is odd, and the film itself builds very slowly. You get title cards for each day (Monday Morning, Tuesday Morning, etc) and get about an hour into the film with things slowly creaking started and slowly getting stranger before it’s full steam ahead for the last stretch of the movie. It makes a large leap at the end of the movie, that while expected, could have been built up a little better. I think this is due to the amount of misleading Shyamalan attempts with this script, which leads me to my next point.
Shyamalan throws a few red herrings into the script in order to try and keep you guessing, but I feel like this ultimately hurts the film. It’s the one thing in his formula he swears by because it worked the first few times. The Sixth Sense will always be the best execution of this, but it also happens to be the first. I’m not saying he should abandon the twist, but perhaps find a fresh approach.
Despite its few flaws, The Visit stands as Shyamalan’s best film since Signs. I honestly want to say more about why I really liked the movie overall, but that would be giving it away and that alone gives it a bit more credit in my book. If you are like me and really think Shyamalan can do something great again but has spent the past decade filtering out the bad movies, then you will enjoy The Visit and it will make you hopeful again.