THE VISIT Movie Review – M. Night’s Losing Streak Continues
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to believe that Time Magazine once called writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (The Village, Signs, Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) “the next Spielberg.” Hyperbole and film criticism, especially film criticism of the populist, non-academic, kind, have had a long, unhealthy relationship spanning decades, if not quite centuries (not yet, anyway). In fact, relying on superlatives (or their opposite) in talking about films, singular or plural, seems to be the default position among critics of a certain disposition and temperament. Still, calling M. Night Shyamalan the next Spielberg, especially based on the 2-3 films Shyamalan had made up to that point, not to mention Spielberg’s non-retirement in the decade plus since Time Magazine used Shyamalan’s photo and that phrase on the cover to move copies from newsstands, didn’t just seem like an egregious, unwarranted bit of hyperbole, it was, in fact, an egregious, unwarranted bit of hyperbole.
Shyamalan’s latest misfire, The Visit, is already being called a return to form, but to borrow a once oft-used phrase, that’s just the “soft bigotry of low expectations” talking. It’s not a return to form; it’s more of the same, albeit with one of the lowest budgets of Shyamalan’s career and a non-prime release date (i.e., the Friday after Labor Day). Neither straight-up horror nor comedy, but a bizarre, ill-fitting mixture of the two, The Visit centers on teen siblings, Rebecca (Olivia De Jonge) and Tyler Jamison (Ed Oxenbould). She’s fifteen and a wannabe filmmaker. He’s thirteen and borderline obnoxious. Together, they venture out of the comforts of a single-parent home and a mother, Paula (Kathryn Hahn), eager to go on a cruise with her latest boyfriend, to visit their maternal grandparents, Doris (Deanna Dunagan) and John (Peter McRobbie), neither of whom they’ve met due to a long-ago spat and subsequent grudge between Paula and her parents.
Armed with a camera to record her grandparents, less to memorialize them before they pass on to their heavenly (or otherwise) reward, than to make a documentary for their mother — extra-textually, the rationale allows Shyamalan to be give Rebecca an expansive, cine-literate vocabulary and poke moviegoers with meta-textual fun — but it soon becomes apparent that Rebecca’s camera (actually two, since Tyler gets one too) isn’t so much documenting their grandparents every day lives than recording their headlong plunge into dementia, mental illness, and quite possibly, violence. Doris apparently suffers from a condition called “Sundowning” (the original title, incidentally, of The Visit). When the sun goes down, Doris’ metaphorical demons come out to play. She rants and raves, runs around on all fours, and otherwise acts like a poor host to her grandchildren while John, ever protective of his wife, begins to show parallel signs of mental deterioration.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from The Visit — and Shyamalan seems extremely eager to provide one — it’s that old people are disgusting, gross, and weird (sometimes worse). They can’t control their bodily functions or escape the iron grip of their impending mortality, taking out their morbid fears and existential anxieties on their grandchildren, individually and collectively representing a running reminder that their time on the surface of our planet has all but expired. It’s mean, cruel, and callous, but it’s also perfectly in line with Shyamalan’s obvious desire to wring more a few cringe-inducing laughs and jump scares from ticket-paying moviegoers. It feels desperate (because it is), the equivalent of “punching down,” essentially re-stigmatizing an entire group (anyone over sixty) while elevating the younger generation as our last or next hope. Showing signs of utter cluelessness, Shyamalan turns Tyler into a white kid who loves rap music (because, of course) while Rebecca shows little interest beyond filmmaking and her documentary.
Then again, an even surer sign of Shyamalan’s creative bankruptcy isn’t far off. It’s present in Shyamalan’s unmotivated or under-motivated use of the found footage gimmick or plot device (don’t call it a genre, because it’s not). It’s not quite “found footage” since there’s nothing really to find, just an excuse for Rebecca and Tyler to carry cameras around with them wherever they go, up to and including The Visit’s singularly memorable set piece (hint, it involves crawlspaces and a surprisingly spry elderly character). Unfortunately, that one scene isn’t a promise of terrifying things to come, but just a one-off scene that constitutes The Visit’s high point suspense and pay-off wise. According to some reports, Shyamalan decided among three distinct cuts of his film, one horror-focused, the other comedy-focused, and the third a mix of the two. He chose the third option, a decision that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed Shyamalan’s freefalling career over the last decade.