The Visit – M. Night Shyamalan (2015)

Gather around, all ye children, and join me at the virtual bonfire, ones and zeroes crackling and sparking in the autumn breeze, as I recount another tale brought to us by Uncle Shyamalan. It is a tale of horrible, weird old people, and precocious young ones, stuck together in a rural farmhouse. It is a story that will leave no head unscratched, no heart unpoked, and no surprises experienced. Yes, if you deign to sit and listen, do be aware you will encounter that dread artifact of reviewerdom, the spoiler; yet rest assured, it will make no difference. Go, see this film regardless, as you will sit, a seeming amnesiac. I guarantee you will not feel a thing one way or the other. Yes, this is supposedly what Shyamalan was put on our dear earth to do: provide experiences that are so fragile they will be destroyed, like a crystalline cathedral, composed of dried hummingbird saliva, placed at the apex of a volcano at the onset of a typhoon, if one gives utterance to the “secret” they contain. The problem, as anyone who has sampled his concoctions will verify, is that Shyamalan’s so easily spoiled “secrets” are often self-evident, dumb, or mind-boggling in their tedium and contrivance. (They are mere shifts of the frame, not ontological earthquakes). His reputation having been built on The Sixth Sense, it has been all downhill from there; indeed, that hill only looks like a mountain from the bottom of the chasm he’s been mining ever since. Yes, I will admit I enjoyed The Village, although I swear I cannot remember if its twist had any artistic merit or not; indeed, I can’t remember much at all about that film, except the general contours of the plot (that is, the twist). And I have not sampled all of Mr. Shyamalan’s rather regularly proffered elixirs, but I can attest that Unbreakable, The Happening, and now The Visit all rank among the most profoundly mindless and artless films of my now rather less than brief existence. But is that a pan?

So what have we here? If you’ve seen the trailer, which looked more like a comedy than a thriller, you were perhaps intrigued as to how our director could knit such seemingly ludicrous moments into an afghan of terror. The short answer, of course, is that he doesn’t. No surprise there, but what does continually surprise me is that Shyamalan somehow manages to keep the movie on track, and moving forward, and gives the characters some depth, despite what could be called, at best, the “concept” that gives the movie its animating spark (or at least animated it some time ago in his adman’s brow). We have a pair of kids, charming if a bit overly verbose, who live with their single Wal-Mart employee Mom (Kathryn Hahn). Mom is estranged from her own parents over a never-to-be-revealed altercation, and the kids are estranged from their Dad over Dad’s own disappearing act. This family steeped in multi-generational trauma splits apart, amoeba-like, yet again, as Mom goes on a Caribbean cruise she really deserves with her new boyfriend, and the kids go to some unspecified New Englandish area to stay with their estranged grandparents. Said grandparents are now volunteer counselors at a mental hospital. (Hmm). The kids have never, ever seen them before, not even in photographs. (Hmmmmmmmm). Mom has prepped them, with her teasing tale, to expect some drama. So, the kids arrive, and Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) are a little weird to say the least. Nana is a good cook, but seems a bit uneasy and fragile. Her hobbies include chasing the kids through the crawlspaces under the house, wandering the abode during the evening hours vomiting, along with moaning, skipping, running, and clawing, also after dark, and often stark naked. Pop Pop, the more communicative of the two, is often absent, out and about on the farm, but when the kids do track him down, he is frequently cleaning his shotgun with his mouth, getting dressed for parties that existed, if ever, decades ago, stacking his used Depends in a pyramid in the shed, or, in the finale, playing Yahtzee like a man possessed. The kids are also quite a pair, but a bit more contained. The older one, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), is the spearhead of this campaign of familial bonding, mostly because she wants to sort out what happened back in the day and get Nana to confess her love for Mom on camera. This is not just for posterity, but because Becca is also a budding documentarian, and so records the entire trip on one of two cameras. The other camera is often in the hands of her younger brother, an aspiring rapper named T-Diamond Stylus (Ed Oxenbould), also known as Tyler, who suffers from microbial phobial OCD (at key moments). Thus the conceit of the film – all the footage we see is part of this documentary, shot on one of the two cameras, almost always held by either Becca or Tyler. The kids spend most of the film trying to alternately bond with and investigate Nana and Pop Pop. What’s in the shed? Poop diapers. What’s at the bottom of the well? Water. What’s in the basement? Mold (or so we are told). A few times, Becca tries to get Nana to grace her with an interview, revealing on camera what went wrong with Mom, and it becomes crystal clear that Nana has firm limits, and wants her questions screened in advance. Result of not doing so? Nana starts to spaz, froth at the mouth, twist and shout. For a week the visit goes on, with Nana getting weirder as the days go by, Pop Pop getting more morose and distant (until Yahtzee, that is), and, once or twice, strangers popping in to say hi. Somehow Nana and Pop Pop are never around when the nice doctor from the asylum where they volunteer stops in, or the nice lady who Nana and Pop Pop counseled through her rehab, or that other guy who I can’t even remember why he was there. Nope, never around. What could be going on? Is Nana a werewolf? Is Pop Pop some strange cultist? A religious nut? Are they aliens, invaded by body snatchers? (Nana recounts, in lieu of interview, a story about beings from another world who keep people in a deep sleep underwater). Why is Nana seemingly homicidal? (She runs around with a butcher knife, but never commits herself). Why does Pop Pop seem so depressed and confused? According to Mom, it’s because they are old. Nana has Sundowners Syndrome (according to Pop Pop), and Pop Pop has early onset dementia. Or maybe schizophrenia. (Thanks for this great trip, Mom!). Finally, while Skyping their mother and begging her to come get them, they happen to flash the webcam at Nana and Pop Pop powwowing in the side yard, and all is revealed. Duh duh dunnn… “That’s not your grandmother and grandfather!” Nana and Pop Pop are impostors? Oh snap! Guess who recently escaped from the local mental asylum? Guess where the real Nana and Pop Pop are? (Serves those middle class busybodies right for volunteering at an asylum). Once the cat is out of the bag, the kids do their best to play it cool, but eventually Becca winds up locked in a bedroom with Nana, and soon enough locked in mortal combat with her. Tyler is held at bay for just long enough while Pop Pop rubs his dirty Depends in the young’un’s face (sending him into microbial phobial catatonia), but soon enough the kids have fake gramps down and are pulping his head with the fridge door. Mom shows up just as the kids escape, and in the denouement, the reunited family waxes sad over Dad’s abandonment, Mom reveals what happened back in the day (she hit her own mother!), and the kids are encouraged to let go of anger. T-Diamond raps us out.

What always amazes me about Shyamalan is that he can manage such an accumulation of details and then somehow ensure they add up to not one damned thing. As you can probably tell, the film does not work as a thriller. Okay, maybe we don’t care, as we have some very meaty tropes to chew over. There is family trauma and the relationships between the generations. There is the problem of aging, which, in an apparent long con to try to make the twist at the end work its magic, is treated quite seriously by the screenplay. (Uh, just take my word on that one). There is the topic of acting – on the train ride to the grandparents’ house, and upon the visit from the doctor, the kids are regaled with failed actors reciting Shakespeare. (That’s twice in 45 minutes!). There’s grandma’s nudity. There’s her story about aliens, and forced slumber. Shyamalan doesn’t know the difference between a red herring and a real one. And this is what, ultimately, is so frustrating about his work, and so fascinating too, for he is, almost uniquely among contemporary directors, a flummoxed and failed magician. He is not a hack. The camerawork in the film is often quite beautiful and impressionistic. The characters have life, wit, charm, and intelligence. (At least, the children do). The story is overabundant with symbolism. So we keep waiting for the magic to happen. We keep waiting for the threads to connect, even accidentally. We keep waiting for a second level to develop in his films, for the symbols to begin to resonate, for a subtext to emerge, or a supertext to descend. But it never does. Ever. Across all his films, meaning is relegated to plot. The “meaning” is the twist. Yes, in the case of The Visit, there is the boilerplate message of moving on and releasing anger at the end, but it has nothing to do with anything that preceded it. No matter how hard you try to connect the dots in his films, to find some deeper resonance, or even a hoary old hidden message, you end in exhaustion and, often, tears (of laughter). His films are close to conceptual art – or better, stage magic – as practiced by a precocious 13 year old. He comes up with what he considers an amazing concept, the perfect “gotcha” (“What if you woke up as a bedbug and nobody said anything!”) and then extrapolates backwards, sewing distractions along the way. He is obviously intelligent, and talented, so why is his oeuvre so consistently samey? In a way, the thing he resembles most is a contemporary practitioner of the Grand Guignol; his is a theater not of meaning, but of effects. The Grand Guignol, however, was, if not art in the way we normally think of it, at least connected to the world it emerged from (that is, it was often working out, in its nightmare mirror, the fresh anxieties of modernity). Shyamalan does not have that. He is, seemingly, an amateur lacking self-awareness. Strangely, he brings to mind, with his campy theatrics that split the difference between horrible and funny, the films of John Waters (another poo lover, incidentally), the difference being that Waters knows exactly what he is doing, his anti-aesthetic being a political and artistic weapon. Waters is a showman, and knows the point of his tricks. Shyamalan is the only director I can think of whose work is bat-shit bonkers and deeply tedious at the same time. In this way, he is beyond (or is it beneath?) aesthetic evaluation.

Two stars out of five

The Wolfpack – Crystal Moselle (2015)

Memories are notoriously unreliable, because they are sensuous, living things; unlike facts, which suffer a death when committed to the page, memories transform because we transform. They age as we age, they fade as we fade. But this, the source of their unreliability, is also the source of their power – they are twinned with experience in a way that we cannot control, and if they must share our lives to exist, they also have an existence of their own. This power is attested to by their unexpected emergence; they come forth suddenly, heeding the call of some external stimuli, innocuously living its own life, unaware of the double that we have always borne along inside ourselves. In this way, memories are like a spirit, and we like a vessel – as memories age, they evaporate, leaving behind a substance which is less in quantity, but, as in any distillation, more powerful and potent because of the process. An era, a relationship, a passage, becomes an emblem: a look or a voice that, by being a fragment, cuts all the deeper. Films, like memories, are fragments, and, like memories, are notorious in their unreliability. Pieces of film, like memories, are stitched together into a larger work – the work of telling a story. The best films not only tell a story, they reflect on this ability, which is at the very heart of human nature and sentiment: the desire to use that which is fleeting as the bedrock on which to build an edifice of meaning. For memories are the evidence we sift through (if we are honest, always futilely), to make meaning, and to understand how we are and who we are. Unlike the world of fact, the more we search in memory, the less sure we become, and the less sure we become, the more we sense we are close to truth.┬áIt is a testament to the power and art of The Wolfpack, then, that the longer we watch it, the less sure we are that we understand the nature of the story we are seeing, and the more meaningful and multiple that story becomes. It is a story about loving movies. It is also a story about survival. It is a story of pain, dysfunction, and abuse, which is also a story of love, protection, and idealism.

The film, shot in a style not often seen anymore, mimics memory by allowing the story of a family to emerge from observation, and from the mouths of the family members. It is not exactly Direct Cinema, but it is close. Whereas Direct Cinema had a political teleology, The Wolfpack is interested in identity, in manifold forms. Some of these forms are indeed political, or, at least, the film is concerned with liberations of several sorts, but it is an anthropological inquiry only by the way of being an (it must be said, Surrealistic) disquisition on self and other, inside and outside, and the power relations that flow, always, from those two people we all know as Mom and Dad. As is usually the case with those who occupy seats of power, Mom and Dad emerge gradually here, in the negative spaces cast by their authority, in the differences we manage to map between the childhoods before us and memories of our own. The film concerns a band of brothers (and, sadly, discursively, one sister) who spent almost their entire childhood locked away from the world; not far away, as in a fairy tale, but close, in a run-down Manhattan apartment. They can see, smell, and taste the metropolis right outside their window, but they are home-schooled, and only father has the key to the front door. Father also has an interest in movies, and so instead of interacting with other humans, the boys interact with films, and eventually interact with each other through films. They recreate in detail (as far as they can), and re-enact, scenes from the movies they love, as a way to ward off boredom, yes, but moreso as a way to understand what it means to be a human among other humans. Reservoir Dogs (a favorite, we are left unsure, because it deeply connects or because it offers substantial roles for all of them), the Batman trilogy, Halloween, and others become quasi-religious rights, enacted in the living room and hallways with the aid of costumes painstakingly hewn from painted pieces of cereal box and sliced-up yoga mat. The undertaking has the atmosphere of a cult, more of the cargo than of the supreme leader variety – celebrations take on an intensity amplified by the close proximity to the “real thing,” the mysterious society that produced the images that entrance and educate them. (Their Halloween celebration is a thing of beauty, power, poignancy, and some dread). We are introduced to Mom early on, but she seems a bystander, almost one of the gang. Like the titular animals, we begin to think that these teens have raised themselves, and we await the revelation that Dad has absconded to another life, or to the next. But no, gradually father is revealed (although that word might be too strong) to be a hermit, ruling over his own small kingdom rather ineffectually. He could easily have been cast as a tyrant, and without sympathy, but Ms. Moselle is too canny for that. Yes, he is a monster in a way, but he is also a magician. Like Oz, he is a small, disappointed man, out of his element, and with a desire for grander things. He is an idealist – or, better, he identifies as an idealist. Originally from South America, he met mid-western Mom as a guide on the Incan trail. Somehow both of these seemingly hippy dreamers escaped paradise into the urban jungle, and never could find their way out. Unable to go native, Dad dreams of bettering himself in the city, to take the family to the true Western utopia, Scandinavia. Unable to make that happen, he slips into stasis, so close to the ideal, but always too far; he lives in the heart of modernity, and cannot escape to a better one. Or so he says – perhaps these are simply the rationalizations of a lazy, drunken failure. Like everything in this impressionistic film, it is hard to tell what is “true” from what is “real.” Failing to reach his destination, and to deliver his family to their true identities, he recreates his trapped position for his children. As he lives just out of reach of his desire, so shall they.

What separates the monster from the magician might be a matter of perspective. For while this father locks his children away, he does not throw away the key; indeed, he creates a situation (or was it always the case?) that allows them, slowly, to discover that they can escape. And, one by one, they do. They begin to rebel against him, in the necessary process of creating their own identities, and by doing so, reveal their uniqueness to the world, and bring the world into the household (in ways that in other films would have been obvious and ham-handed in their “drama,” but which here flow by suggestively, as memories tend to do). So while father replicated his own prison, he also created a way in which his children could escape theirs in a way he never could. Yes, we can say he has hobbled them, ill-prepared them for the “real” world. At the same time, as we see in a late movie trip to an upstate pumpkin farm, the years cloistered from “reality” have also enchanted reality in a way most of us cannot comprehend. The boys run, whoop, and play, experiencing the colors, tastes, and smells of nature at a time of life which ensures they will be remembered. The father’s sin allows his offspring to experience the world with the fresh senses of children. And, in a turn that is both poignant and potentially self-serving, the children liberate their father as much as is possible – he is along for the ride, although, heartbreakingly, always keeping himself at a remove. As the film winds down, questions only multiply, while answers do not, and the narrative becomes even more fragmented. One of the brothers seems to hitchhike away. Another gets a job as a PA on a film set, and even moves into his own apartment. Mother is reunited with her own mother, who she has not seen in decades. (We hear of a reunion, but do not see it). The daughter, too young to be independent, and who naturally seems to stick close to Dad, remains obscure. (One devastating shot, taken from a distance at the pumpkin farm, shows Mom, Dad, and daughter moving across a field in happiness, only to part as Mom wants to investigate what the boys are up to, Dad splitting off, recoiling into solitude, and the daughter, tottering between them, staggering on, unsure who to follow. We do not see her choice). I am quite positive that the unresolved nature of much of what we see will be dissatisfying for many viewers. If so, that would be a shame, because there is much skill, and strength, in Ms. Moselle’s technique. It takes considerable command, and resolve, to let material speak for itself. The results are mysterious, enigmatic, and gripping, revealing depths that reflect on the nature of the self and of family, and on how we live together at the larger level of a society. In some ways the film is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s films from the ’70s that focus on outcasts in relation to society, but in many aspects The Wolfpack is more powerful, as it is more humble and less mythic. With the logic of a dream, the film ends with the family producing a “real” film; no longer enacting the dreams of others, each player comes before the camera transformed, representing both him or herself as well as enacting their newly recognized “role.” It is both the logical culmination of the life of a cinephile (playing out in micro form the New Waves of the 1960s) as well as a poetic testament to the forever present possibility of self-fashioning and transfiguration. It is a portrait of the artist as a young man as well as a family portrait; it is the family portrait of us all.

Four and a half stars out of five