The Visit (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
12Jan/160

The Visit (2015)

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Paula needs a break.  She receives an offer to go on a cruise shortly after her husband left her for someone he met in Starbucks.  Her kids, Rebecca and Tyler, need care and Paula reaches out to her estranged parents for help.  But when Rebecca and Tyler notice their grandparents engaging in strange behavior they start to suspect all is not what it seems for Nana and Pop Pop.  M. Night Shyamalan writes and directs The Visit and stars Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn.

Keeping the darkies awayLeave it to one of cinema's most maligned directors to turn to one of its widely criticized genres to revitalize the appeal of both.  M. Night Shyamalan has spent over a decade on projects ranging from promising but deeply flawed in execution (Lady in the Water) to outright horrible (The Last Airbender, After Earth).  It seems after he spent some time as a producer and directing for the small screen his wit and uniquely sympathetic characters emerged from his mind for The Visit.  He's always been talented but overt fantasy pieces don't benefit from his thriller-inspired style.

What I didn't expect was how wonderfully his rigid structure works for the "improvisational" found footage genre.  Something audiences have a hard time grasping and even long-time cineastes such as myself need a reminder of just how much work goes into making something look "natural".  The previous use of quotations is important, because found footage movies more than other genres need our acceptance of the artificial and more theatrically aimed performances next to the mumblecore performers.  Shyamalan works this knowledge of found footage to his advantage by crafting a scenario ostensibly real on the surface but is an elaborate performance piece by two terrible people.

Don't jump ahead and assume it's the grandparents or the kids I'm discussing here, because you could make a case for either.  But when it comes to The Visit I think about the sporadic flashes of sympathy Shyamalan's earlier films paid to the working class and otherwise forgotten elements of America.  The Sixth Sense wouldn't have nearly the same impact if it were not for Toni Colette's performance, Unbreakable would similarly dissolve if not for the economic strain Bruce Willis and Robin Wright hint at in their scenes, and even The Village in its own weird way tried to respect the unusual traditions of isolated pockets of America.  Our viewpoint is through the children, Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge)  and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), and it's through these two we should consider The Visit's visuals.

Rebecca's obsession with "organic" film-making and trapping her subjects in rigid lines that we have to remember any visual prison they are in is entirely of her doing.

Rebecca's obsession with "organic" film-making and trapping her subjects in rigid lines that we have to remember any visual prison they are in is entirely of her doing.

Consider, then, the way these children film and speak with their mother Paula (Kathryn Hahn).  The cinematic reality edited together from Rebecca's footage emphasis sharp angles and prison bars in even the most innocent of circumstances.  Their mother describes her vacation away from the kids as "A Wal-Mart Sales Associate is going to be on the world's largest cruise ship."  She defines herself entirely by her job and not by her relationship with her children.  So when the kids look through their webcam at their vacationing mother it's depressing, the cruise ship is empty, and a sparse collection of people assembled for a "best hairy chest" competition.

This isn't some lark or random bit of characterization.  It's important to establish that this depressing cruise is where Paula goes to not be a mother, which given the unsparing treatment Rebecca shovels onto Paula in the opening scenes is not surprising.  One child keeps trying to emotionally undermine her mother, the other interested in rapping casually misogynistic verses.  When Shyamalan's films work best they trap characters in emotionally devastating scenarios set into motion long before any hint of the supernatural is introduced.

What's fascinating about The Visit is how it expressly avoids Shyamalan's supernatural tendencies to show how the deep needs of the peripheral characters are ignored for the entertainment of the protagonists.  Rebecca and Tyler are creating their own fictional reality as they go along, inventing new reasons and scenarios to both explain away their grandparents' increasingly irrational behavior while poking at their obvious wounds.  This is clear from the first scene where Rebecca is pushing her mother to talk about things she doesn't want to, and echoed in a later moment as Nana (Deanna Dunagan) receives a similar interrogation but goes into an epileptic fit when she can't take the pressure anymore.

Shyamalan adapts well to the found footage style, crafting a number of shots where our eyes dart for the potential source of visual disruption.

Shyamalan adapts well to the found footage style, crafting a number of shots where our eyes dart for the potential source of visual disruption.

All the while Shyamalan continues to highlight how artificially constructed the children's predicament is.  The rigid lines of their "prison" give way to typical found footage horror visuals like mold-covered basements.  The climax is especially impressive, cutting a carefully blocked confrontation in one part of the home and an almost animalistic night-time fight for survival in another.  Shyamalan's construction is so precise it begs the question, as all found footage does, to who this footage intended for?

Keeping with the spirit of the times and the various bits of tech involved - we've been trolled by two terrible brats who aim at internet fame.  Whether they truly get their hands dirty or not in the final scenes is up for interpretation.  What isn't is how oblivious they are to their mother's pain, the way they're willing to manipulate Nana into emotional states she shouldn't be in, and ignoring the most obvious and devastating cry for help when Rebecca comes across Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) with a rifle in his mouth.  The children don't help, they just probe deeper, break more rules, and by the end it seems they've created a climax to benefit their exposure for the audience glued to the screen.

Both Shyamalan and found footage are defined more by their failures than their successes.  But without Shyamalan's sympathetic eye for the plight of those who live on the fringe and found footage's way of implicating the audience in the sins onscreen The Visit would not be as effective as it is.  Whether this revitalizes Shyamalan's career or not remains to be seen, but it's good to know he's still got talent to spare.

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Tail - The VisitThe Visit (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn.

Posted by Andrew

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