Night Shyamalan has said that he had three cuts of the movie: one comedic, one scary, and one a mix of both. The film I saw was not scary, so I can only assume that he settled on the comedic cut. I was surprised to find myself laughing quite a bit, not at dialogue or plot, but at the jokes. I don’t know how much of my enjoyment was genuine and how much of it was ironic. What parts was I meant to laugh at? I cannot decide either way, and Shyamalan is not a filmmaker who, lately, has earned the benefit of the doubt, or even a shred of trust.
His recent filmography is baffling enough that a new movie has become something of an event. People cannot wait to see if he will top himself. Can it possibly get worse? I asked myself that very question while waiting for the film to start. There was an energy in the theater normally reserved for only the most anticipated cinematic events. I felt pangs of sympathy for an artist who, at one point, was prolific. As the lights came down and the movie began, I did not hope to be amused by a ridiculous, inept mess, as perhaps others were.
“The Visit” concerns two children taking a train to the country to visit their estranged grandparents. Becca and Tyler are two of the most insufferable preteen characters to the grace the screen in quite some time. The former is a pretentious filmmaker-to-be, and the latter a free-stylist and aspiring rapper (“I have the sound of Tyler the Creator,” he tells his grandmother). They are to spend five days at their grandparents’ house while their mother (Kathryn Hahn) enjoys a getaway cruise with her new boyfriend. The film begins with Hahn sitting in front of the camera, divulging the details of her troubled marital history. For what we are watching is in fact a documentary shot and cut by Becca, in an attempt, we learn, to reconnect Hahn with her parents.
This plot point concludes itself with a second Hahn talking head in which she tearfully expounds to Becca, “Don’t hang on to anger!” Mother and daughter unite onscreen for a hug. It’s a shockingly tone-deaf scene in a movie that, for the enjoyment it provided me, did absolutely nothing to earn this climax. The movie’s end credits play over footage of Tyler rapping in his bedroom. It was at this point that I left the theater, uninterested in whether or not there was another scare to be had, or another laugh. “The Visit,” like any suspense movie, hinges on the audience’s ignorance of what is truly happening. We get glimpses into odd behavior and are left wondering as to the cause of it all. Once we find out, the film collapses in on itself. It trades the suspense of not knowing the truth for the suspense of the safety of our main characters, two grating people for who I wished only the worst.
The chemistry between the two young actors is a highlight of the movie. There are small moments that anyone with a sibling can recognize from his or her own childhood. Fighting over who gets the bed, made-up games played to pass the time during long car rides, secrets kept between one another, an inclusive partnership through which they communicate and share and protect one another. It’s a shame that Becca and Tyler are written so poorly, because with good material they might have pulled it off.
As far as found footage goes, it’s pulled off relatively well. There’s enough reason to be filming everything, a detail most FF movies tend to ignore. However, any time I see a movie shot in this style, I ask myself: “Would this movie be better, as good, or worse if filmed regularly?” About “The Visit,” I came to the conclusion that it didn’t necessarily matter. There are surprisingly few scares to be had throughout, and the ones that do exist only serve to emphasize the worst aspects of the format. It is only too easy to whip the camera around a dark room, only to come face-to-face with something terrifying, in this case, a murderous grandmother. I had hoped that Shyamalan might rise above the common tropes of the genre, that this would announce his return to high-level filmmaking, that I would leave the theater surprised and, believe it or not, smiling.
Now, a few days after having seen the movie, I know that my surprise came, not from a quality film, but from a film of surprising quality. The surprising part comes from its writer-director, a man who has been the victim of perhaps more hate and ridicule than he deserves. The main problem with this film is not that one expects its creator’s patented twist, not that the writing is extraordinarily bad or incompetent. No, the most looming issue is that “The Visit” is not that good, yet I left the theater shrugging and thinking it wasn’t that bad. With the lowest of low expectations, I enjoyed it. What’s worse: hating a film or pitying it?
Written by Lucas Dispoto