By Mike Dub
“You can’t mess up slow dancing because it’s just kind of a slow motion hug. The only way you could mess it up is if you started fast dancing in the middle of it. And she was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t understand social cues!’” — Mike Birbiglia
Somewhere toward the end of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, I experienced a sudden vision of comic Mike Birbiglia bizarrely fast dancing to a slow song, thrusting hands and arms and hips unrhythmically, confusedly glaring at others on the dance floor for signs of appropriate behavior, knowing that he’s doing something wrong but incapable of understanding what it is. It seemed like quite an apt metaphor for Shyamalan as a director: a bumbling ne’er do well, incomprehensibly flailing about as if to yell, “I don’t understand cinema!”
That spirit has been distilled recently into the strangely slow, bloated-at-94-minutes horror-comedy mockumentary The Visit. Here are just a few of the things about cinema that Shyamalan doesn’t understand:
The story centers on 15-year old Rebecca and her 13-year old brother Tyler as they head to their estranged grandparents’ country home for a week-long vacation without their mother. Rebecca, a budding filmmaker whose cloying precociousness makes Macauley Culkin’s early work seem quietly reserved, decided to film the reunion as a documentary. The mockumentary device gives Shyamalan free reign to indulge in a meaningless and random cacophony of filmmaking buzz words: “classical formalism,” “focal length,” “mise-en-scene,” a half-assed nod to Hitchcock during the climax, omnipresent product placement for Final Cut Pro, and of course, self-referential plot points that draw our attention to his previous films. But there is never any context, no cleverness, and certainly no commentary. Shyamalan tries to excuse his remedial conception of cinema studies by placing the movie in the “voice” of a 15-year old. In addition to employing an annoying and tired gimmick, the problem is that Shyamalan doesn’t possess enough to touch to differentiate between obnoxious characters and obnoxious films.
Despite the constant presence of juvenile humor (an elderly person’s incontinence is a running gag throughout the film) and the irritating, self-reflexive winking, Shyamalan clings to the reality of his film like a 15-year old making a mumblecore movie. There is a never ending stream of dead-air punchlines, as when Tyler sees an old woman’s bare ass and turns to the camera to say, “I think I’m blind,” but everything that happens in the film is contained within the reality of the premise of Rebecca’s documentary.
That is, until the climax. At the end of the bloody climax, which involves abuse, mortal danger, and several killings, there is an obscene use of a soft, lovely pop song – the kids’ mother’s favorite song. The juxtaposition suggests an attempt to undercut the superficially happy ending with an acknowledgement that the events these children have experienced are truly horrific and traumatic and will likely leave lasting scars on their psyches. It’s the first moment of the film that we are at all aware of Shyamalan’s capacity to comprehend anything larger than the scene in front of him. Not to worry, though, because there are two painfully heartfelt scenes that follow the climax, complete with sincerely saccharine orchestration on the soundtrack and characters competing with each other for who can squeeze out the most tears of joy and forgiveness.
Like in most horror films, the characters’ experiences in The Visit serve as a metaphor for underlying emotional problems: the catalyst for the children’s danger is the breakdown of their family. Their father left five years ago, and their mother has been estranged from her parents since she was 19 years old. The children journey to their grandparents in order to understand and heal the rift between their grandparents and mother, and thereby understand and heal the emotional damage wrought by their father’s absence. Shyamalan, a father himself, has constructed a film aimed at teenagers around this moral: regardless of devastation, parents must always be forgiven. Indeed, it is the responsibility of children (even if they are 13 or 15 years old) to repair the family bonds that have been severed by their neglectful or abusive parents before it’s too late. At the age of 45, M. Night Shyamalan has made a film whose emotional complexity amounts to, “You’ll be sorry when I’m dead!”
One thing I’ll admit: I didn’t see the big twist before it was revealed. That being said, Shyamalan’s commitment to rehashing the same gimmick again and again has long ago passed the point of holding any interest – certainly, it cannot sustain a feature film. Shyamalan has become a garishly self-conscious “auteur,” interested only in reiterating superficial tropes instead of creating a meaningful examination of recurring themes. With The Visit, he has managed to make a film that is both annoying and dreadfully boring at the same time. I suppose that is an achievement of sorts.
One gets the sense that Shyamalan doesn’t understand why he can’t just make the same movie over and over again. I don’t understand how he can.