Overview: A teenage filmmaker and her younger brother document a trip to meet their estranged grandparents for the first time, but it quickly becomes clear that the two elders have some dark secrets. Universal Pictures; 2015; Rated PG-13; 94 Minutes.
Cinematic Standards: Regular readers of Audiences Everywhere know I’m on record as saying that M. Night Shyamalan never fell off, and that he has always been a filmmaker of immense talent. I was worried about his first foray into found footage with The Visit, since that genre’s loose naturalism seemed to be at odds with Shyamalan’s strict and deliberate visual style, but I’ve never been happier to be wrong. The Visit is the first found footage film in a long time to use the technique for something other than a banal realism. By putting the camera primarily in the hands of fifteen-year-old filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge), Shyamalan opens himself up to directorial flourishes that would normally seem out of place for the genre. Put simply, Shyamalan makes found footage work for him, and even scenes that aren’t motivated by in-universe directorial intent are imbued with the same masterful eye for composition.
The work of cinematographer Maryse Alberti must be noted. She has extensive experience shooting documentaries (most notably on some of Alex Gibney’s most famous works, including Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room) and she brings visual grace to even the most chaotic scenes. An early shot of the two grandparents John (Peter McRobbie) and Doris (Deanna Dunagan) obscured by a wet window is the tip-off that this won’t be a found footage film motivated by visual hysteria. Even the wilder scenes have a definite structure to them. The stand-out may be the hide-and-seek scene, which uses repeating concrete columns in a crawl space to create the sense that the space is infinite. Shyamalan and Alberti use two cameras for this scene, to great effect. It begins outside the crawl space, cutting back and forth between the two cameras’ views of each other. But they quickly lose one another, and before long a third party enters the space. This scene creates horror from the inability of even two cameras to capture a whole and definitive vision. We can never see everything that’s going on, but the suggestion of what’s coming for you just outside of the frame is highly unsettling. You can’t truly accomplish that with the presumed omniscience of a traditional third-person perspective, at least not to the same degree, and there are shots in this film of such profound and abstract beauty that I was moved to tears. Most films in this genre seem to be shot by regular people. The Visit is very clearly shot by filmmakers. “No one cares about cinematic standards anymore,” Tyler tells Becca at one point, and it’s hard not to read it as a disgruntled Shyamalan who is sick of being stamped a hack by people with very narrow ideas of what cinema is supposed to be. He cares about cinematic standards, and The Visit is proof enough of that.
We Are Family: Shyamalan didn’t have to do anything more than this to justify his use of the format, but The Visit has things on its mind that only found footage can communicate. This is a film about performance, specifically in regard to the roles we are asked to perform as members of families. Even more specifically, The Visit is about children rejecting the roles they have been assigned and attempting to take back control of their own narratives. The running gag about random adult characters telling Becca and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) that they used to be actors isn’t just a recurring joke, it’s part of the film’s thematic thread. All of the conflict in this film derives from children defying the roles that either their parents or society expects them to fulfill, most vitally the mysterious fight that caused Becca and Tyler’s mother (Kathryn Hahn) to cut her parents out of her life. The Visit wants us to question the implicit responsibility of parents to carve out paths for their children, to direct their lives the way a filmmaker directs a film. By making Becca a director, the film flips that on its head. Becca sets out with the intent of applying the narrative arc of her film to the lives of her mother and grandparents. She uses cinema to put reality into a box and take control of it, and the horror crops up when reality stops cooperating. It’s telling that her most emotionally vulnerable moment is the heartbreaking scene wherein Tyler interviews her on-camera. She gets trapped in her own box, a metaphor exacerbated by Tyler’s slow zoom onto her face. Few moments in cinema this year have touched me so deeply.
The Visit is all about the roles that are imposed on us, and the ones we impose on others. Both its horror and its comedy are derived from people not acting the way that they’re supposed to act. Thirteen-year-old suburban white boys aren’t supposed to rap, and grandmothers aren’t supposed to run around at night in the nude, vomiting and banging on walls. The film plays on these decayed, perverse iterations of the classic tropes of “ideal” family life, and it exposes the disturbing power dynamics inherent to those tropes. It deals with the consequences of not playing your intended part, as well as the self-loathing that can result when you don’t play it well enough. It’s as complex a portrait of American family life as you’re likely to see in the twenty-first century, using our obsession with documentation and personal narrative as a vehicle for examining our impulse to dominate and influence the lives of others.
Overall: The Visit is a remarkable accomplishment of digital filmmaking, and a moving exploration of the performative elements of being in a family.