The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Visit

M. Night Shyamalan has had a fascinatingly implosive career. Once dubbed “the next Spielberg” by Newsweek magazine, he initially delivered an impressive string of hits with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Then, almost as if a curse had been placed on him, his talents seemed to disappear. The Village was dull and predictable, and The Happening was widely derided for its eco-horror subject matter. The problem reached a nadir with Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, and After Earth, all of which were borderline unwatchable. How could someone with so much promise abruptly go off the rails to such a dramatic degree? The director's latest, The Visit, is a step forward, in that it finds Shyamalan in a more playful, experimental mode. It's still an utterly mediocre picture, although it certainly suggests he's trying to get his mojo back.

Kathryn Hahn plays a single mother who sends her two children, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), to stay with her estranged parents for a week. The kids are so excited to finally meet their grandparents – and to promote family healing – that they work together to make a documentary about their trip. (Yep, The Visit is told in the played-out “found footage” style.) Not long after arriving, they realize something is very wrong. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) trolls around the house naked after dark, while Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) hides bizarre items out in the shed. At first, Becca and Tyler think this is all a product of dementia. Eventually, though, it becomes clear that something more sinister is taking place.

It's hard to know what to make of The Visit. At times, it seems as though Shyamalan is trying to use the horror genre to tell a story about the tragedy of Alzheimer's. Other times, he appears to be making a dark comedy. In the third act, all the worst qualities of the found footage format take over, and it starts to feel like a generic Blair Witch Project ripoff. Either of the first two things could have made for a perfectly satisfactory chiller; mashing them together and then tossing in the confining qualities of found footage (explaining why the camera is rolling at certain times, a dimly-lit shaky-cam finale, etc.) just creates a tonal mess. The movie bounces around like a pinball, never quite settling on what, exactly, it wants to be.

The Visit works best when Shyamalan dives headfirst into the bizarre. Nana and Pop-Pop do things that are genuinely strange, in a creepy “What is THAT about?” kind of way. Nana, for example, insists that Becca crawl all the way into the oven in order to clean it. In these moments, the film plays like an amusingly wacky modern-day Grimm's fairy tale. A certain interest is generated by the creative, sickly funny things the filmmaker devises for his elderly characters to do. Shyamalan also shows a touch of visual creativity in filming certain sequences. A game of hide-and-seek played in the crawlspace underneath the house is ingenious in the way it plays on the mechanics of trying to move around in a cramped space.

At its worst, The Visit is woefully ineffective. There isn't enough time spent with Nana and Pop-Pop before they turn freaky, thereby making their transition rather unconvincing. More time invested in showing how their apparent doddering ways are actually a mask for something less benevolent would have made them more impactful characters. They have no personalities, just increasingly disturbing quirks. Becca and Tyler, meanwhile, seem to interact with their cameras to a far greater degree than they do with their grandparents, which blunts the terror they are supposed to feel as the story progresses. The kids seem more concerned with keeping the footage rolling than with solving the problem in front of them, namely that they are trapped in a rural location with a couple of old people engaging in dangerous behavior.

For about seventy minutes of its running time, the movie alternates between these extremes of being appealingly unusual and drably non-frightening. The final twenty minutes put the nail in the coffin. The big finale, in which the children are forced to take action against Nana and Pop-Pop, is awkwardly staged and strangely emotionless. That scene is followed by a coda which attempts to inject a heartfelt message into everything we've just witnessed. Kathryn Hahn is nothing short of magnificent delivering a lengthy monologue, but the moment itself feels like a cheat. THE VISIT has done nothing to earn such a sincere conclusion.

Shyamalan deserves credit for trying to pare down some of the self-seriousness that marred his other recent projects. If nothing else, The Visit is devilishly demented in spots, which is a nice change of pace for the director. But the found footage technique and unsettled tone prove limiting to the material that works. Ultimately, the film plays it a little too safe, when going even wilder and more out-there would have allowed The Visit to soar.

Hopefully, next time around Shyamalan will have enough confidence to take the gloves off and leave them off.

( out of four)

The Visit is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and for brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

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