“The Visit” (film review)

September 14, 2015

M. Night Shyamalan’s new film The Visit has a fairy tale feel to it as Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent off to visit their estranged maternal grandparents in a big, isolated house while their single mother takes a much-needed weeklong cruise.

For reasons that are not entirely clear (but are nonetheless essential to the film) Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, decides to make a documentary about their visit, perhaps in hopes of interviewing their grandparents about why the family was fractured so badly that there’s been no communication for years between them. All goes well at first but soon the grandparents (Nana and Pop Pop, hardscrabble country folk who would feel at home in the Grant Woods painting American Gothic) start acting a bit strangely, especially after dark. The kids (and their mother, via Skype on a laptop during an occasional video visit) chalk it up to old age idiosyncrasies, but as the days pass things turn from odd to sinister.

The Visit switches seamlessly between Shyamalan’s camera lens and Shyamalan-as-Becca’s camera lens throughout the film. I know Shyamalan has been busy for the past few years, mostly putting out duds like After Earth and The Happening. Maybe he’s been so busy that he didn’t get the memo notifying him that the Blair Witch-style “found footage” device lost its novelty around 2005. That’s not to say that a brilliant script might not be able to overcome its limitations, but the point is moot because The Visit is not a brilliant script. It’s not bad–it’s just that in addition to the squeaking doors, scary footsteps, and dramatic music you can also hear the script clunking away.

Though the script has Shyamalan’s fingerprints all over it–and is in many ways a return to form to his better films such as The Village and The Sixth Sense–I can’t help but wonder if the same script could have been done better by another director. The two lead child actors are both excellent and give nuanced performances; unfortunately they’re hobbled by the script’s inconsistencies for their characters. The words Shyamalan puts in Becca’s mouth are often Juno-level implausible; we get that she’s a smart and precocious budding filmmaker, but her dialogue sounds nothing like a teenager and instead like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese trying to out-auteur each other on a filmmaking panel.

There’s some interesting tension in wondering whether the family’s bizarre actions may be genetic; Nana and Pop Pop act strangely and have their quirks, but then again so do Becca and Tyler–sometimes. Shyamalan can’t keep his characters consistent and his story straight. Tyler’s morbid fear of dirtiness and germs is briefly mentioned early in the film, but conveniently vanishes in later scenes where he’s happily exploring dank, musty areas or playing tag under the grimy and dusty floorboards of their grandparents’ house. Becca has similarly plot-contrived issues; she is confident and precocious the entire film–except for one brief and jarring scene in which she’s suddenly nearly reduced to tears by her brother who out of the blue asks about her inner feelings of self-worth. It’s not clear whether these vanishing vulnerabilities are rooted in poor writing, poor editing, or both, but they undermine the film.

The Visit, like some of Shyamalan’s best films, has a twist that’s more plausible than those in many Hollywood films. However the film-within-a-film contrivance is distracting. When the otherwise apparently intelligent Becca is confronted by a scary human menace that shall remain unnamed, instead of simply dropping her camera and abandoning her pet documentary project in order to save her life and escape, she inexplicably chooses to film the terrifying figure coming at her, for maximum dramatic horror-movie effect. I understand why Shyamalan shot the scene that way, but when the silliness of a main character’s actions distract from the scene, that’s not a director or cinematography choice; that’s a filmmaking error.

The same issue appeared earlier this year in the film Unfriended, in which a group of online friends meets mysterious demises often seen in Blair Witch-y fashion; as I noted in my review of that film, “when the lights in his room go out, one guy bizarrely decides that the best way to investigate what’s going on is by carrying his laptop in front of his face so that he can give his friends running commentary on what he’s doing; his death thankfully removed the tendency for such maladaptive behavior from the gene pool.”

Despite its flaws The Visit is successful enough in building fear and tension in a creepy atmosphere to merit a tepid recommendation. It’s unlikely to win any screenwriting awards but undemanding fans of creepy thrillers (or Shyamalan) will likely be spookily satisfied.