I find myself defending M. Night Shyamalan more than I'd like to. I make no excuses for Lady in the Water, The Happening still gives me migraines, and even though he wasn't as in control of studio films like The Last Air Bender or After Earth, he still has to answer for his involvement as a filmmaker. Those are the rules. But his twist endings (show me a film that doesn't have a third act revelation) and distinctive directing style have become more of an excuse to bash him and his body of work, and it has reached the point where you can predict the complaints about his films ("I guessed the twist right away," blah blah blah) before they're posted in the IMDB message boards. M. Night has had the unfortunate task of having to live up to the hype created by the overwhelming success and acclaim of The Sixth Sense, and the decreasing quality of his work after The Village (some would argue sooner; I disagree) has done nothing but fueled the ire of his detractors.
Which is why I am so glad that The Visit has proven to be a sort of redemption for M. Night. Don't get your hopes up too high - this low-budget found footage thriller isn't out to break new ground or redefine the horror genre. Instead, it's doing what it set out to do, which is make an entertaining low-budget found footage horror film. Of course, you're going to have to deal with M. Night's trademark emotional soul-searching in between jump-scares, but that just comes with the territory. Beyond that, there is little here to hate (rationally, at least). The premise is plausible enough for a horror film, the characters and dialogue are as realistic as you are willing to allow (more on that in a moment), and M. Night drops hints and shuffles scenes of tension and levity back and forth enough to be textbook examples of storytelling.
The setup is straightforward and to the point: A single mother hasn't spoken to her parents since she fought with them about marrying the father of her two children, and who eventually left them. The grandparents contact her online asking to see their grandchildren, the kids agree, and so she reluctantly ships them off to a week with mom-mom and pop-pop at her childhood home while she goes on a Royal Caribbean Cruise (insert blatant product placement here) with her new boyfriend. Becca, the older daughter and film enthusiast, decides to make a documentary of the visit, giving us our excuse for the found-footage nature of the film. The situation is simple and setup early on, giving us plenty of time for slow tension-building and character development as Becca's cameras record far more than she had ever intended.
Yes, regardless of the setup, a found-footage horror films is already far from original. But that doesn't mean it is bad from the start, and compared to some of the dismal recent entries into this genre - such as The Gallows, or whichever Paranormal Activity film we were subjected to last - The Visit works at the top of the form. Less gimmicky than most, the POV nature of this film is actually used to develop the story and immerse the viewer in the main characters' perception, something a lot of the more recent found footage films have abandoned for slight-of-hand optical tricks and repeated jump scares. In short: it was fun, and I enjoyed it.
Not that I didn't have issues with the film. The Title, for starters. M. Night has never excelled at naming his films, seemingly opting for the plainly descriptive titles that actively describe the main plot or location - the worst of these being The Happening, which might as well have been called Vague Plot Description, and the best of these being Signs, which actually manages enough of a double meaning within the film to pass as clever. The Visit has that same problem, and at one point during the film I found myself wondering he didn't call the film Sundown, which for reasons evident upon viewing would have made a much better title. To his credit (and mine), I discovered later that the working title of the film was originally Sundowning, so it's probably safe to assume that the title change was a corporate marketing decision, so I'm ultimately neutral on that point.
Then there's the location. Yeah, I get it. You really like Pennsylvania. Enough already. The specific location itself doesn't actually have any bearing on the story, but just being actively aware that I'm being subjected to something for no other reason than the filmmaker's personal obsession makes this irritating to me. It's like watching a Tarantino film. Okay Quentin, you have a severe foot fetish. Very Nice. Back to the film now, please.
And on a personal level, I always hate it when a filmmaker introduces a filmmaker as a main character. There's something a bit myopic and narcissistic about this setup, as it always feels like the filmmaker is begging for understand. M. Night was guilty of this to such a major degree with Lady in the Water - introducing an evil critic character who admits to giving negative reviews out of spite and then killing him, an obvious reference to his own negative reviews - that I still feel he needs to stay as far away from this type of setup as possible. It didn't have a negative impact on the film itself, but it still left a bad taste.
So altogether, most of my issues with The Visit were minor and cosmetic. Much of the other negative criticism I've seen that isn't Shyamalan-centric is mostly nitpicking about stuff that shouldn't need a back story explanation ("Where did they get the tripods?" I'm guessing they packed them with the cameras...), and much of them aren't worth discussing. The one I feel needs some attention is one that I had issues with initially while watching the film, the dialogue spoken by the main characters, Becca and Tyler. Throughout the film, the older sister Becca is overly erudite in her speech patterns, while younger brother Tyler is incessantly uses slang ("Swerve.") and gives impromptu rap numbers more often than anybody is probably comfortable with. And yes, after an hour of this even I'm thinking that the girl is using way too many fifty-cent words and hip-hop lad needs to tone it down a bit. Most people complaining about this are resorting to the overall argument that the dialogue for the kids is "not real" or sounds "phony and unnatural." And at first I was probably in agreement.
But M. Night doesn't make normal films, and in the case of this story, these are NOT normal kids. It is explained very early in the film that the father literally picked up and left one day, severing all contact with his wife and children, and that at least two of them (the mother and Tyler) sought out therapy to cope with severe abandonment issues. In a film that involves a subtext of people playing parts - hinted to by a couple of random characters in the first act who begin reciting Shakespeare as soon as the camera is pointed in their direction - we are dealing with two children who are coping with abandonment issues by constructing personalities around their true selves, something that most children do at one point or another without a severe psychological trauma to trigger feelings of inadequacy. So in this situation, yes, we are watching two children who are not necessarily acting "naturally," whatever that is. Becca purposely attempts to act and sound important and intelligent, and Tyler seeks out attention through popular cultural signals and actions. So, in my opinion, this is more a creative decision than it is the poor screenwriting that many have labeled it as, like it or not.
As someone who recommended I see the film said to me, if you aren't expecting something completely original and groundbreaking, you're going to enjoy yourself. I wasn't, and I did, much more so than many of this year's horror film offerings.