Well, I'm back (not that you were upset) just in time for fall. I won't hesitate in saying that the summer cinematic season was a little less than exciting for me, but there are a few I'm looking forward to starting now. The first of these, just in time for fall, is M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit. It is his most stylistically sincere film in many moons, although how you feel about it will depend on how much strange you like in your diet.
The film is about Becca and Tyler, tweenaged siblings who go for a week's family bonding with their estranged grandparents. Weird old people problems become gradually less shrug-offable as the week wears on and Becca sifts through the footage to help bring the family back together.
First, I'll address what you've probably heard, that this film is a refreshing return to form for Shyamalan. This is mostly incorrect. True, the film provides jumps and tension, and it also showcases his humor more than any of his work since probably Signs, and is not bad. However, the director's subtler (and more defining) stylistic hallmarks are not present. There is no carefully-meditated cinematography, no spiritual undertones, no introspective current. The film feels, more than anything else, like a stretching of creative arms after increasing studio oversight and critical derision, coupled with the producing talents of the people who brought you Insidious.
So let's talk about the film we have. I said it was stylistically sincere, and that style takes the form of a documentary shot by our protagonists. It is not "found-footage," but is only just barely more cinematic. The location is beautiful and the establishing shots wonderfully composed, but much of the action is made of blurry, jittery footage that would likely not have made it into Becca's documentary. Not that it doesn't work. But even under the guise of "documentary style," it is a form that demands constant attention to and justification of itself, which adds an unnecessary layer of distance between the audience and an otherwise tense story. It is, in the end, the film's greatest weakness.
But I'm not sure how I feel about the rest of it. I left feeling mostly unsettled, but not in the way that "disturbing images" alone make you. It was more the complete unconnectedness of the film's elements. The music is a stringy, sentimental, and oddly funny tune from an old musical. Tyler (aged 13) has not one but three freestyle whiteboy raps that were embarrassing to watch with other people. And of course, the photography swings between unsettlingly static and uncomfortably immediate.
One gets the sense that Shyamalan is winking at his audience, delighting in the almost self-consciously bizarre spectacle they have admitted themselves to. And in that sense it is one of his stronger artistic statements for a long time. But upon reflection on the film's assembly and tone, one also gets the sense of how the strange grandparents in this tale might feel: confused, without good bearing, but intrigued. So it works. My one story qualm is fairly minor, but worth mentioning. I felt a little disappointed when the film's main thematic takeaway was a hamfisted exhortation to not hold onto anger, instead of at least acknowledging the weirdness and disconnect inherent in the millennial habit of pointing a camera at anything in order to come to some sort of catharsis, even if it might kill you. Maybe next time, though.
The Visit features Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagen, and Peter McRobbie, and is rated PG-13 for many things grandparents don't usually do and some swearsing.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
by Chase Harrison