Character Study, Chekhov’s Gun & Self-Aware filmmaking are a few qualities you wouldn’t expect to see from a found footage horror film. However, M. Night Shyamalan’s newest effort, The Visit implements these devices brilliantly, defying audience expectations the entire way.
15-year old Becca Jamison (Olivia De Jonge), and 12-year-old Tyler Jaminson (Ed Oxenbould) are going to their grandparents’ isolated Pennsylvania farm, far away from cell-phone service and civilization. Having never met their relatives before due to estrangement from their mother (Kathryn Hahn), Becca decides to document the entire trip as a documentary about her family’s reconciliation. Day-by-day, their grandparents’ (Deanna Dunagan & Peter McRobbie) actions become more suspicious, leading the kids to wonder if they’re simply dealing with dementia or a much more sinister force.
Plot-wise, it feels like Shyamalan’s true purpose for the film was to make a character-centric slow burn, rather than a conventional horror film. The first two-thirds contain almost no scares, allowing the audience to familiarize with the characters and their isolated environment. Eventually the build-up crescendos into one of the most heart-stopping final acts of mockumentary cinema, or 2015 for the most part.
Usually a hinderance for most films of its genre, even the successful ones, The Visit’s found footage style of storytelling actually strengthens it. The interviews allow the audience to gain inner knowledge about the characters, who would’ve been generic family members otherwise. This is most notable in the buildup, where the hidden cameras capture all of the children’s interactions, an effective way of establishing their chemistry and future plot threads.
Without the abundance of sequences designed to establish story basics, the film would fall flat. Blumhouse fans driven to the picture due to brand recognition are sure to be disappointed, as The Visit couldn’t stray any further from the traditional Blum formula. M. Night seems to be aware of his audience’s expectations, toying with them in a fantastic bit involving Becca cleaning the oven.
The tightness of the script is an admirable quality, as Shyamalan dedicates heavily to the concept of Chekhov’s Law. Almost no dialogue is wasted (save for comedy bits), with seemingly minute details such as Tyler’s OCD gaining significance later on in the story. Unlike many films that spoon-feed audience members the clues, the connections can’t be made until the very end as one realizes they were there the whole time. While not every thread is directly confronted, they all get a resolution by the ending, whether it be through a subtle visual cue or line of dialogue. Attentive viewers will be rewarded.
Child actors De Jonge and Oxenbould do a fantastic job in the film, not only giving their characters emotional depth but retaining realistic chemistry throughout. As the story progresses, each character is surprisingly fleshed out by personality quirks and their unique views of the situation. Oxenbould’s performance is especially impressive, evolving from an annoying, naive comic relief in the first half into a vulnerable and attentive investigator.
The most notable scene comes from the second act, where Becca and Tyler each interview each other on the emotional effects their father’s absence has had on them growing up. The interviews are powerful moments as each party tries to deny any damage from their father ditching the family, before eventually breaking down onscreen. The scene is pulled off largely due to incredible performances by the child actors, simultaneously portraying denial, sadness and anger. It’s a nuanced, poignant moment that deeply studies what makes the characters tick. This, along with the other family interviews elevate the film from a horror flick to a deep character study about the effects of separation on a family’s well-being.
Shyamalan takes a meta-approach to the film, deconstructing the mockumentary genre. He seems to be channeling his criticisms through Becca as a somewhat pretentious filmmaker, constantly sputtering off complex cinematic terminology no one around her understands. One prominent example is Becca handing her brother a camera, telling him to implement “classism and formalism” into his shots. This is immediately juxtaposed with footage of Tyler placing the camera in his mouth, wiggling his tongue at the viewer, almost as if Shyamalan were using this moment to stick up a middle finger to his critics and announce that he is going wherever he wants to with the film.
Since the children are aware they’re the ones making the film as it goes on, Shyamalan is able to push the commentary further. Although characters in mockumentaries perceive that they’re being filmed, the protagonists of The Visit seem like they’re in on the joke, such as when Tyler chastises Becca’s filmmaking for being emotionally manipulative and flashy.
Unlike so many found-footage films from the past five years, The Visit sets its own cinematic rules and abides by them the entire time. In every scene there is a sensical justification for why we are witnessing the events occurring, and the cinematography realistically correlates to the characters’ actions, opposed to framing impossible shots for clarity. A risky move, the climatic showdown is chaotic, shaky, and blurry, but terrific sound design and vocal performances carry the entire scene into a tense, unforgettable moment that left the audience cheering despite largely occurring off-screen.
The most unique aspect of Shyamalan’s direction is that opposed to cheating the audience, he implements the environment to organically develop atmosphere. The entrance to the farm is a notable sequence, as the camera silently veers out a car window to present the character’s isolation within snowed-out surroundings of the Pennsylvania backwoods. For scares, the noise from characters handling the cameras takes place of a soundtrack, and works effectively as a device to build tension. In the finale, the atmosphere of terror is brilliantly elevated as sounds of a massive thunderstorm are juxtaposed against silent, disturbing visuals.
Shyamalan’s approach to terror is a breath of fresh air, producing fantastic tension working within the limits of the genre. The largest sin of mockumentary filmmakers is defiance of the concept, implementing cinematic techniques and jump-scares with loud and unfitting booms to jolt the audience. During The Visit, I could count the total amount of jump scares on one hand, and every single one is honest, realistic, and justified in its context.
The biggest problem of the film is its jarring tonal shifts. Shyamalan says he constructed three cuts of the film, one comedy, one horror and one blend. The combination is often inconsistent and clumsy in the first half, especially when an early chase scene is immediately followed by a shot of Nana’s bare buttocks, completely defibrillating any tension created prior.
This approach isn’t entirely unsuccessful, as the contrast of genres help further the characters’ paranoia over whether their relatives are simply goofing out from dementia, or legitimately going insane. The mixture later becomes an asset to the third act’s descent into straight horror, knee-jerking the audience awake as the once-quipping characters are placed in severe danger. This would’ve worked perfectly if the film ended five minutes earlier, but the resolution reverts back to goofy comedy that is obscenely out of place following the extreme stakes that preceded it.
M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, The Visit, is a plot-centric character study wrapped in the package of a found footage horror film. Fantastic performances, nuanced direction and a commitment to Chekhov’s Law make the picture a pleasantly surprising experience, with one of the most unforgettable endings from a mockumentary in the past decade.