Nobody wants to kick a man when he’s down, but sometimes that’s the only way to ensure he’ll never get up again. “The Visit’s” existence proves we haven’t been kicking M. Night Shyamalan hard enough. We got too complacent. We should have poked him with a stick and checked to see if he was still breathing after the kicking he received in 2013 for helming that Jaden Smith vanity project. But during the past two years Shyamalan somehow summoned enough strength to pick up a camera and make another bad movie. “The Visit” is on us. We allowed it to happen. It’s time to limber up and slip on our sturdiest pair of kicking clogs because this simply can’t happen again.
Don’t call “The Visit” a comeback because that would imply there was a time when Shyamalan’s films weren’t a pile of curdled whimsy and duh. Instead “The Visit” is a return to excruciating form but with a twist. Tackling one of the most innovative and fresh cinematic styles of 2007, Shyamalan’s latest is yet another uninteresting entry in the increasingly moribund found footage genre.
In the film, Kathryn Hahn sends her two loathsome children (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) to spend time with her estranged parents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) in the rural town of Masonville, Pennsylvania where cell phones don’t work but Skype inexplicably does. It should be noted that Hahn has not only not spoken to her parents in 15 years, she also left them under mysterious circumstances.
Additionally, her parents were acting strangely out of character the last time she saw them. Basically, on the safeness scale, this situation ranks somewhere in between dumping them in the woods with pork chops tied around their necks and leaving them with the guy down the street who drives around in a windowless van with the words, “Ask me about my free kittens” grimly keyed into the passenger side of the vehicle. Nonetheless, DeJonge and Oxenbould try to make the best of a bad situation by turning their visit into a documentary that chronicles Dunagan and McRobbie’s quiet but eccentric lives. Unfortunately, the elderly couple’s cute little quirks quickly evolve into something more sinister whenever the sun goes down. Are Dunagan and McRobbie suffering from a rare form of dementia? Or is there a more supernatural element at play? Well, guess what? There’s a Ta-wist! A ta-wisty, twisty, twist! The kind of twist that will make you go, “What?!?” Then, “Wait!” And then, “Oh that’s bull — !”
Like most of Shyamalan’s filmography, “The Visit” is a great idea bungled in the execution. There are flashes of a more interesting film. Particularly the scene in which McRobbie plays off his own suicide attempt with the annoyed embarrassment of someone who was caught jerking off or just any moment where a nude, vomiting Dunagan wanders around her house on all fours, shrieking like a wounded animal. Unfortunately, “The Visit” doesn’t focus on McRobbie and Dunagan as much as it focuses on DeJonge and Oxenbould, a pair of truly unlikable characters whose onscreen deaths never come swiftly (or at all, sadly). In spite of being 13, DeJonge’s character speaks with the pretentious, world-weariness of a bitter film school drop-out while Oxenbould constantly drops the lamest white-boy rhymes you’d never want to hear (it’s not clear if we’re supposed to be laughing at or with his character).
There’s a smugness behind these kids that makes them impossible to root for. Making matters more annoying is the fact that “The Visit” is supposed to be funny. But this is comedy produced by a man who thought we’d be terrified by the idea of Mark Wahlberg talking to a fake tree. It’s comedy from somebody who doesn’t understand what comedy is or even how people talk or interact. Everything in “The Visit” rings untrue and that includes the inevitable third-act twist which falls apart under even the most cursory of examinations.
Nonetheless, “The Visit” is arguably one of the best films Shyamalan has ever made. But being the best movie in a filmography that includes “Lady in the Water” and “The Last Airbender” is like finding out that strychnine is the tastiest of all the poisons.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Peter McRobbie, Deanna Dunagan, Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Weekender Rating: W