Friday, September 11, 2015

Zaki's Review: The Visit

The last ten years have been tough ones for M. Night Shyamalan. After the late-'90s/early aughts trifecta of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs marked him (per a Newsweek cover story) as "The Next Spielberg," he ran aground with 2004's The Village, and things only got rougher from there. With his After Earth disappointing two years ago, it's understandable that the writer-director would return to kind of small scale chiller-thriller that paid so many critical and commercial dividends for him early on. Unfortunately, The Visit isn't so much a bold reconquest of his home turf as it is a sad marker of just how far those glory days are.

Serving as the director's entry into the "found footage horror" sweepstakes, The Visit again revolves around Shyamalan's propensity for taking seemingly benign scenarios and slowly revealing a seedy, supernatural (?) underbelly. In this case that scenario is youngsters Becca and Tyler (Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould) going on a long distance trip to spend a week with the grandparents they've never met (Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie). While things seem Norman Rockwell enough at first, it isn't long before the seams start to show. Something is "off," and we're in the passenger seat alongside Becca and Tyler as we try to solve the mystery.

In the early goings, Shyamalan actually does a pretty good job of drawing us in, displaying a noticeably lighter touch as we get to know our young leads, as well as setting up the film's central conceit of Becca making a documentary about their trip (thus allowing for the whole found footage thing). The kids are both likable and engaging, displaying an easy chemistry and kinship with each other. Further, and without giving anything away, the dawning realization that things aren't entirely right with "Nana" and "Pop Pop" is paced in a way that the build up to the reveal feels worth it (and it's a pretty decent twist, so I won't deign to spoil it here).

Now, we've seen countless found footage flicks since The Blair Witch Project arrived in 1999 (mere weeks before The Sixth Sense, actually). Some have managed to pull it off more successfully than others (Chronicle and Cloverfield come to mind as better examples), but I've yet to see even one example of the genre that can get past the inherent artifice of the format. That is to say, the notion that no matter how stressful or terrifying a situation might be, our characters still manage to keep their camera rolling and capture the footage that comprises the narrative. For all of his confidence with the form, this is a trick not even Shyamalan can manage.

Also, for as much as The Sixth Sense indelibly shackled him to his reputation as "Twist Ending Guy" (something that's really only the case for about half of his output), based on what happens in The Visit, he doesn't seem to be in much of a hurry to divest himself entirely of that rep either. (Although, rather than put it at the end, the big reveal here arrives around two-thirds of the way in, so I guess that kind of qualifies as a twist itself.) However, once the secret is out, there's really nowhere interesting to go from there. And so we sit, biding our time as the story winds down.

Unlike The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, both of which are legitimately good movies capped off by brilliant final act swerves, The Visit's structure is such that its only reason to exist is that swerve, after which we have the rest of the film to work backwards and see all the ways it doesn't particularly hold up to scrutiny. When I reviewed After Earth, I noted that, "at just over 90 minutes, it doesn't really stick around long enough to become actively offensive. It comes and it goes, and then it's forgotten." And I can apply the same sentiment here. The very best thing about this visit is that it's a brief one. C

For some more thoughts on the varied career of M. Night Shyamalan, as well as all the latest out of Hollywood, catch the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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