1. Man oh man, remember the Newsweek that dubbed M. Night Shyamalan “The Next Spielberg?” Has an entertainment-cover of a national newsmagazine ever aged worse? All right, maybe this one. But man, that Newsweek cover might have been the worst thing that ever happened to Shyamalan. The Sixth Sense was a surprise massive hit that worked because it was so modest; its surprise snuck up on you because you didn’t think the movie had it in it to pull such a rabbit out of its hat. Unbreakable worked too, a slightly expanded Twilight Zone-esque comic book origin story back when not every damn movie was a comic book origin story. Shyamalan could have carved out a perfectly respectable workmanlike career producing glossy genre pulp, maybe a slightly more studio-friendly Peter Hyams or something. But to call him the new Spielberg? To hype his next movie like he was our next Hitchcock? Shyamalan was 32 when that magazine, and Signs, came out. He was neither talented nor self-aware enough to avoid crashing and burning with all the praise at that age. Shayamalan, as that point, was destined to implode.
2. That he imploded in such spectacular fashion — with The Village, The Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, which are legitimately five of the worst studio movies, each is, of the last 10 years — is what has made his name so synonymous with flops and studio ineptitude. (Though his box office record isn’t as shoddy as you think it is.) At this point, Shyamalan’s stock has fallen so low that he could film explicit bovine intercourse in real time in one take and release it, and it would feel like a step forward. That’s the only reason I can give you for the (relatively) solid notices for his new film The Visit; the expectations are so low that we want to pat him on the head for simply finishing the movie. But don’t be fooled: This movie’s almost as bad as the other ones. Even if Shayamalan could scale back his ambition and try to go “smaller,” it’s not in his nature, even when you sense that he’s trying. (You can’t call someone the next Spielberg in front of the whole country and ever expect them to be a straight-ahead, efficient filmmaker again.) It’s pointless; he still can’t stop smelling his own farts.
3. The Visit is Shyamalan’s first foray into the “found footage” genre, which of course means he fancies it up to the point where his main character keeps tossing out French film terms to make it clear that He Knows What He’s Doing. That main character is Becca, a teenage wannabe filmmaker who decides to make a documentary of her and her brother’s visit to their grandparent’s house in rural Pennsylvania. It’s one of the story’s many, many contrivances —another is that their mother hasn’t talked to her parents for 19 years, making her ignorant of even the most basic details of their lives— that allow Shyamalan to be slack and careless in his plotting to set up payoffs that aren’t worth all the pulley-tugging anyway. The kids are forced to stay in their room from 9:30 p.m. on as their increasingly strange grandparents make a series of mysterious noises outside their door. What’s going on? Are there ghosts in the house? Is there something else supernatural? And why does Grandma keep trying to get Becca to climb into her oven?
4. In stabler, less jittery hands, this could have been a perfectly servicable found-footage take on a fairy tale, two kids lost in the woods trying to fend off various invaders. But for Shayamalan’s ability to manufacture a jump scare — which he pulls off a couple of times, I guess — he has grown progressively worse as a screenwriter. He keeps putting words like “elixir” and “schadenfreude” in the mouths of his kids, and he’s made one of them a freestyle rapper, which, well, you can probably guess how that works out. Even the way he structures the movie is awkward, clumsy and sloppy. He makes a big fuss out of the grandparents’ house being far away with no wi-fi or cell service ...except they can Skype with their mom whenever they need to. Whatever is haunting the house and the grandparents has no real motive, and all the “mysteries” the kids come across are poorly conceived and never particularly well-orchestrated. Shyamalan even keeps trying to toss in some pop psychology but hasn’t really thought it through; the brother is a germaphobe because their dad left, or something, and it’s so incompetently introduced that you can almost hear Shyamalan off-screen saying, “These are stakes! And backstory!” There’s no more invention here than you’ll find in a Robert McKee “Story” lecture, and Shaymalan’s so lost that at times he even includes the stage direction.
5. This all leads up to, yes, another M. Night Shaymalan “revelation” that’s neither revealing nor particularly surprising; it’s surprising how little weight is given to the moment when everyone finally figures out what’s going on. (It might be because this moment is revealed over Skype, which is a screenwriting problem more than a directorial one.) The movie’s not modest; it’s full of moment where Shyamalan demands you notice him, jumping up and down, telegraphing every move. For all his failures, Shyamalan still, to his credit (?), makes exclusively the movies he wants to make. But, like the rest of them, this one feels like it was made in a test tube, with just one authorial voice, a voice that desperately — still, more than ever — needs an editor, someone to shake him, once and for all, to knock all that Serious Filmmaker business out of him. He is always the orchestrator of his own demise; he’s too far gone now. The sad part isn’t that people think The Visit is the best Shyamalan movie in a decade. The sad part is that they’re right.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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