A few weeks ago, I posted a review of the new Jesse Eisenberg movie American Ultra. It was a very positive review for a movie that has generally gotten negative press. I argued that it was in fact a clever comic take on the saturated action/thriller market, with an excellent cast and some strong set pieces. I think the genre mash-up is putting off fans who come in expecting a traditional action flick. If you go in with the right frame of mind, there are many rewards to be had.
Half the comments I received praised my perception. The other half called me an idiot. Well, American Ultra has a 46% on Rotten Tomatoes, so that seems about right.
A few days ago, I saw M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie The Visit. It also has been getting mixed reviews, currently at 62% on RT. Its fans think it is somewhat of a return to form after a very, very long dry spell for Shyamalan. They point out that it is a comic take on the saturated horror market, featuring very strong performances and some solid set pieces. And I agree with all of that.
Only problem is, I didn’t like the movie. At all. There were enough good elements for me to keep it out of my bottom ten for the year, but it is well below average in my mind. How does one justify that? Especially when your own words about another movie would seem to support a very different conclusion? I don’t know at this point. Hopefully, in the next fifteen minutes, by the time I get to the end of this review, I will have an answer.
Shyamalan is working from a good premise. Teen brother and sister Becca and Tyler have never met their grandparents. Their single mother had a brutal falling out with Nana and Pop Pop when she got married, and has never reconciled. Then, her husband, Becca and Tyler’s dad, left them and things have been very stressful ever since. The kids jump at the chance to meet their mysterious grandparents when the option presents itself. Mom goes off on a cruise with a new beaux and the kids hop on a train to small-town Pennsylvania to visit their mom’s childhood home.
Nana and Pop Pop seem kindly and doddering, but there are odd signs almost from the beginning. The spunky and good-natured teens make the best of the situation, even when Nana exhibits bizarre, rather frightening behaviour each night. There is also a really bad smell coming from the shed that Pop Pop periodically visits.
Things get worse and worse, and more and more hints of violence creep into the visit, prompting the kids to eventually call mom and request an evacuation plan. Then comes the twist – something Shyamalan was always known for in his early movies. I won’t reveal the twist, though it’s not too hard to predict. That actually is a good thing, because Shyamalan long ago became so beholden to those narrative twists that they felt gimmicky. Here, the twist is modest and effective.
This all sounds great, right? Well, there’s more nice things to say. All four of the principals are quite good. Olivia DeJonge is a lively teen presence as Becca and Ed Oxenbould shows some serious comic chops as the 13 year old Tyler. Both of the young Australian actors handle American accents effortlessly. Veterans Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie balance the sweetness and menace of Nana and Pop Pop quite well. And what’s more, there are several laugh-out-loud moments throughout. Watching Oxenbould put on a show of “playing” with a ball is a little comic gem.
So we have a good premise, good acting, good moments, some nice mash-up comedy. What’s the problem?
The movie, for lack of a more sophisticated explanation, is god-awful boring. In its 90-ish minutes, I found myself looking at my watch at least a dozen times. I think I may have fallen asleep. Twice. Shyamalan has always been a director of “slow” narratives. That suited his debut, the massively successful The Sixth Sense. He would push that pacing to the limit in his third movie, Signs. I thought it made sense. In The Visit, the slow pace seems pointless.
The movie begins with the kids’ mother giving a talking head interview explaining much of the back story of her relationship with Nana and Pop Pop. It seems to drag on for a very long time. Then we get the train journey, in which Tyler treats us to one of his many raps. He will deliver freestyles at several points, including during the closing credits. I said Oxenbourg is very good, but seeing a precocious white tween do some mediocre rapping is not what I’m plunking down $9.50 for. Shyamalan never seems to have control of his pacing. Too many sequences drag on several beats past their “use by” date.
Then there is the found footage issue. Did I mention this is a found footage movie? Becca is making a documentary about her family, and so the entire movie is comprised of footage shot by her, or by Tyler. This was a cliché five years ago and it’s very hard to imagine a scenario where this is a good idea today. The horror set pieces – moving through the darkened basement or sneaking peeks around corners at suspicious behaviour, are beyond clichéd. I realise, of course, that if you are making a satire, you use traditional genre devices to make your point. But you twist them somehow. You don’t just hold up a mirror and tell your audience to look at how boring this old device has become.
Then there are the little logic problems that infest The Visit as surely as Pop Pop’s shed is infested. Mom doesn’t want the kids to go because of her past with her parents, but she relents because the kids want to go so badly. We learn that at the beginning. Next thing we see is Tyler bitching about the lack of Wi-Fi he will experience out in the country. Sounds like maybe he didn’t really want to go all that badly. Later, the kids have ample time to run away and seek help when things really start to get weird, but they never do. They insist on dragging their camera everywhere they go – a logic bugaboo that plagues many a found footage effort. And the denouement, again with mom just talking about stuff, offers what I think is supposed to be a meaningful lesson about the power of forgiveness – which has never been referenced in the preceding 89 minutes.
And by the way, that mom is played by Kathryn Hahn, an actress significantly better in comic roles than in dramatic ones.
So there you have it. A movie that has some good pieces but is done in by a weak script, weak direction, and weak editing. Boring and clichéd. Which is exactly what some viewers said about American Ultra. I guess the point is, despite technology’s efforts to script, direct and star in movies, those movies will always remain subjective, held together by some invisible creative magic. Despite our best efforts to quantify and categorise, film resists being locked down. Cinema presents unpredictability in a manner which makes it so engaging. So human.
What a wonderful thing that is.
PS – if you want to see a true found footage horror film about the elderly, check out The Taking of Deborah Logan from 2014.