One star. Rated PG-13, for violence, nudity, mild profanity and disturbing thematic material
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.11.15
That’s it: No more movies by M. Night Shyamalan.
He has exhausted the final reserve of my benefit-of-the-doubt, things-have-to-get-better generosity. The gloves are off: Whatever talent the man had, once upon a time, obviously flew south several migrations ago ... and went extinct.
And shame on every studio — in this newest case, Universal — that has enabled him, by bankrolling and releasing such dreck.
I’d call The Visit his worst effort yet, except that he plumbed those lamentable depths forever and always, with 2010’s atrociously awful live-action adaptation of the cartoon series The Last Airbender. Nor can this newest train wreck lay claim to the title of second worst, because of the equally lamentable Lady in the Water. Not to mention the similarly dreadful After Earth and The Happening.
So I really, really want to know: Why do people keep throwing money at this hack? Don’t track records count for anything?
OK, yes, Shyamalan uncorked a masterpiece chiller with 1999’s The Sixth Sense: a bravura bit of writing and directing, along with a fiendishly clever premise — deftly exploited — that deserved all the good things said about it. And his immediate follow-up, Unbreakable, was reasonably well sculpted.
But the cracks began to show with Signs, and the (bad) writing truly was on the wall when The Village came along. That was a decade ago, and since then we’ve suffered through nothing but swill.
The core problem is easy to identify: Shyamalan has a knack for a nifty premise — and The Visit is no different — but his execution leaves much (actually, everything) to be desired. Clumsy narratives. Badly conceived characters who constantly behave like idiots. Performances so breathless and wooden that they warp. Plot holes large enough to permit the flow of rush-hour traffic.
On top of which, Shyamalan clumsily squanders his own concepts, forsaking any semblance of subtlety for thunderously blatant “clues” that baldly telegraph the supposed “gotcha!” intended to make folks squeal with delight, nod with admiration, and mutter “Wow, I never saw that one coming.”
In your dreams, Mr. Shyamalan.
That’s the sad trouble with hitting so spectacularly, so early in one’s career. Shyamalan genuinely astounded viewers with Sixth Sense, and he’s been trying to top that act ever since. To increasingly diminishing returns.
But enough generalizing. On to cases:
Things have been rocky for teenage Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), ever since their father abandoned the family for some young hottie. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) still hasn’t recovered from the betrayal, and the two kids have suppressed their own issues by embracing a shared career as sibling filmmakers.
When their mother embarks on a weeklong cruise excursion, Becca and Tyler eagerly take the opportunity to spend that time with their grandparents, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie), who live in isolated Pennsylvania farm country. It’s a first-time meeting on both sides, since the kids’ mother has been long estranged from her parents, who strongly disapproved of the ill-fated marriage.
Whatever the enmity with their daughter, the elderly couple eagerly welcomes their grandchildren. But Becca isn’t content to simply enjoy the upcoming week; she’s determined to find out precisely why her mother refuses to discuss what caused such a severe family split, so many years ago.
Fantasy-fiction elders tend to come in one of two extremes, depending on who shapes the narrative. Ray Bradbury’s grandmothers, grandfathers and distant uncles are jovial figures composed of equal parts wisdom and nurturing love. Stephen King, on the other hand, is apt to focus on the qualities that instinctively frighten children: the wrinkled skin; the shuffling, mildly unsettling gait; the cackling non-sequiturs; the bad smells; the occasional whiff of senility. (See Exhibit A, his 1984 short story “Gramma.”)
Nana and Pop Pop tend toward the latter qualities, although Becca — intelligent, soulful and forgiving — generously excuses her grandparents’ occasional quirks and lapses as the natural results of old age. Tyler, less charitable, is convinced that Something Is Wrong.
To be fair, Shyamalan sets things up reasonably well during the expository and understated first act. Nana and Pop Pop are eccentric and set in their ways, to be sure, but — try as she might — Becca can’t find that ominous, or even unusual.
Things turn weird very quickly thereafter, and it becomes impossible to believe that two modern children would behave with such naïve innocence and utter stupidity, to the point of placing themselves in personal danger, time and time again. And when Becca reluctantly agrees to climb into the oven, in order to clean it, or — a bit later — wanders resolutely into the darkened basement, knowing full well that Something Bad is down there ... well, we can only throw up our hands.
Did these two kids miss the lecture on stranger danger? And it never dawns on them to simply leave?
But I haven’t yet mentioned what makes this film particularly irritating.
Shyamalan has crafted this as a “found footage” narrative, which is to say that we only see events as recorded by Becca and Tyler’s two ubiquitous video cameras. To say that this device is employed maladroitly is the grossest of understatements; it’s insufferably contrived and utterly unbelievable. Somehow, even when they’re running or crawling away in terror, Becca and Tyler always manage to keep the lens pointed at themselves.
This clumsy gimmick arguably got its start back in 1947, with star/director Robert Montgomery’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe mystery, Lady in the Lake. Montgomery’s conceit was to frame the entire movie as if we were viewing things through Marlowe’s eyes; in other words, we only saw Montgomery when (for example) he stepped in front of a mirror.
The film tanked. Deservedly.
Half a century would pass before the concept really took off, with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, which brought new meaning to the phrase “shaky-cam.” That film’s success was fueled by a genius publicity campaign that played on Generation Y’s growing fascination with the Internet and what soon would become selfie narcissism. That aside, the emperor had no clothes; Blair Witch was just as off-putting and awkwardly unnatural as Lady in the Lake had been, decades earlier.
But the genie was well and truly out of the bottle, and we’ve suffered through “found footage” efforts ever since. A few have been mildly crafty, as with 2007’s Paranormal Activity. Most are simply unwatchable.
Shyamalan obviously felt that he had to jump on that bandwagon, hence his approach here. But his use of this faux documentary style suffers from an additional flaw: Aside from being annoying, it’s pointless! The only excuse for “found footage” is that it exists in order to be found, preferably in a way that adds an additional jolt to the story being told. That never happens here.
By the time Tuesday evening’s preview audience got dragged to the final frames of Becca and Tyler’s “filmic masterpiece,” with its (supposedly ironic) cheerful background score, viewers were actively hostile. Given access to some rotten fruit and vegetables, I’m sure the screen would have been a soggy mess.
I feel sorry for the young performers, trapped in such a fiasco. DeJonge is an expressive actress, with solid camera presence and a soulful gaze; she capably portrays Becca’s growing disorientation. Oxenbould is just plain funny: a gifted adolescent with to-die-for comic timing, making good on the promise he showed in TV’s Puberty Blues and last year’s big-screen adaptation of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
Shyamalan grants Tyler an amusing gimmick, which Oxenbould exploits perfectly: When the boy wants to swear, whether in surprise, appreciation or fright, he substitutes a pop star’s name (i.e. “Oh, Katy Perry!”). Our laughter is genuine.
Alas, not even Oxembould’s precocious presence can save this turkey. A few other folks make blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances, in a few cases lending clandestine weight to this story’s (Not So) Big Surprise. (Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Stacey behaves with equally clueless foolishness.)
Fantasy films — particularly horror films — require an unspoken accord between creator(s) and audience: Grant us an engaging premise and resourceful characters worthy of our respect, and we’ll forgive occasional lapses in real-world logic. Abuse that trust, however, and viewers don’t simply tune out; we get angry.
Shyamalan has been abusing such trust for at least 10 years and six films.
Please, somebody take his camera away, before he shoots again.