The Visit (2015)

Grandma’s Rules:
1. Have a great time.
2. Eat as much as you want.
3. Don’t ever leave your room after 9:30pm.

The Jamison siblings — Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) — are sent by their single mother (Kathryn Hahn) to spend a week with their estranged grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie), whom they have never met. As the kids document the whole journey with video cameras, they begin to notice that their Nana and Pop Pop are acting strange. Compelled by the elderly couple’s peculiar behavior, the children spark up an ongoing investigation that leads them to uncover a frightening secret.

Sometimes a movie can compel an audience to sit there in dread. If it’s a horror film, than this can be a positive experience — a feeling that the atmosphere within the frame is threatening to overtake the characters we’ve grown connected to. Other times, it’s just bad filmmaking. And on occasion, it’s M. Night Shyamalan.

To contextualize, I don’t actually hate M. Night, I think he comes up with interesting central concepts and can coax out decent performances from his cast. Thing is, he’s a terrible screenwriter in love with his own scripts. Even if they stink.

‘Back in my day, we called it ‘Polishing the Rifle’ ... ’
‘Back in my day, we called it ‘Polishing the Rifle’ … ’

There’s a simple solution to this — Shyamalan could come up with a basic story or idea and let ‘someone else’ write it. You know, a dedicated, talented screenwriter. Then M. Night could direct from a properly developed, polished script.

Come to think of it, when it comes to The Visit, one has to wonder how much of a script there was in the first place.

See, in this faux doco style movie, very little happens that’s worth discussing and what there is, is barely capitalized on. I’m going to do you all a favor here and summarize ‘the happenings’ (haha, little Night pun). If you don’t want to know any of the details, just skip the following paragraph.

Nana runs nakie like a wolf at night; ‘Pop Pop’ poops himself regularly; it looks as though the grandparents want to eat their grandchildren (but they’re just nuts); the kids are dedicated camera ops who hold their equipment even when their faces are being smashed into mirrors and Mum tells us not to ‘hold onto anger.’ (Slow clap, please).

The false doco approach seems to remain popular with filmmakers simply because it can be done cheaply (true), easily (perhaps) and be effective (sometimes). What they often forget is that it’s a highly demanding style of filmmaking as it invites the audience to accept the reality of the film, namely that at the key expository points; 1) the camera battery has power; 2) the camera is recording; 3) enough visual/auditory information is clearly conveyed and of course; 4) the cast are ‘real.’ This method puts a great deal of emphasis on the technical realization (can’t be too glossy) as much as the exposition (can’t be too obvious), both of which The Visit often loses its credibility to the point of distraction.

Shyamalan’s inner child, looking for a real story.
Shyamalan’s inner child, looking for a real story.

The most jarring aspect of The Visit is its dialogue. I understand that there are some smart children out there, but at times, Becca and Tyler speak as if they’re characters from the 1998 television show Dawson’s Creek, using words and concepts I highly doubt they’ve actually encountered yet. The scene where Tyler utters the word ‘mise en scène,’ feels off, playing like an outtake after Shyamalan had just explained why his shot took so long to set up. In addition, attempts to stoke the weird possibilities of ‘why things are,’ tend to be groan-inducing and ultimately amount to nothing other than a waste of screen-time.

The only decent or dependable element here is the cast, especially the young duo, who appear to have a genuine, warm, sibling-like rapport. Olivia DeJonge, The Sisterhood of Night (2014), and Australian Ed Oxenbould, Paper Planes (2014), are stars in the making. I’d go so far as to say that, if it weren’t for them, then The Visit would’ve sunk deep into its snowy pastures by the time the grandparents are first introduced. Although DeJonge and Oxenbould do actually manage to keep the first half of the picture in an inoffensive, ‘average’ sphere, Shyamalan plunges everyone into a lackluster payoff by time the unsatisfying conclusion drops.

The grandparents, Tony Award-winning actress Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, Lincoln (2012), are decent too in fact, but good moments are undone by the woeful dialogue — a scene where granny mentions, in hushed, serious tones, the ‘Darkies,’ elicits giggles rather than chills. I’m all for comic relief, but somehow, I doubt that was the intention here.

You’d be this upset too if your DOP forgot to light the set!
You’d be this upset too if your DOP forgot to light the set!

On the topic of intention, I have no idea what The Visit wants to say. A corny, sappy epilogue tries to ram the message down our throats that we shouldn’t ‘hold onto anger.’ What anger? Who’s angry? I thought this flick was about a snowy getaway with nutsos. If this was sincerely the message behind the picture, I’m yet to grasp any evidence of this concept being developed within the constraints of the narrative.

I can defend Shyamalan’s earlier pictures The Happening (2008) as a ‘so bad, it’s good’ style classic, I can forgive The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) as shrug-worthy attempts at kid-friendly blockbusters, but I can’t really forgive The Visit. Just don’t visit this one.

Never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for those kids.

1.5 / 5 – Poor

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

The Visit is released through Universal Pictures Australia