Finn Jones may be best-known, at least online, for his controversial 2017 casting in Iron Fist, which had him playing a white dude martial arts master, privileged with mystical kung fu powers and exorbitant wealth. In Justin P. Lange’s film, The Visitor, Jones is similarly called on to play a fish out of water, to much better effect. In fact, Jones’ London charms are necessary to play Lange’s protagonist, an Englishman abroad in the good ol’ American South, where he and his wife hope to settle down in her childhood home and start a family.
No one needs to be from a foreign country to stand out in the South, of course. Walk into a southern bar and locals will know just by looking at you, by smelling you, that you ain’t from around here. But the affable, oblivious Robert exacerbates that sense by talking with such well-heeled speech, in one of those English accents Americans so love. (We’re over the occupation. It’s been long enough.) The moment his better half, Maia (Jessica McNamee), walks him into her old stomping ground for a drink, everyone in the place starts gravitating to him like bugs to zappers. Except The Visitor is a horror movie, which means that something is off about Maia’s quaint small town and its residents, even as they greet Robert like they’ve been waiting for him to make the trip for years.
It’s true that some parts of the south run on the insular side; it’s also true that others lean the polar opposite direction, and embrace strangers like kin or long-lost friends. Lange plays The Visitor’s location in the former key, creating a guessing game about whether or not Robert’s warm welcome is sentimental or motivated by another, darker purpose. Robert is more immediately alarmed by another element of his trip: The painting in Maia’s house, a portrait of a man sitting in an armchair with an uncanny resemblance to Robert.
The Visitor isn’t in the same Gothic ballpark as Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, wisely. It isn’t really in the same neighborhood as the last few years’ deluge of doppelgänger movies, either, like Us, Cam and The Hole in the Ground. The “what could it be?” element is engrossing fun, because there are so many ways that Lange could connect the dots between Robert and the man in the painting; trying to outsmart the film feels like wasted time. Jones makes an unexpectedly believable everyman: He’s a terrestrially handsome actor, the kind of good-looking you’ve encountered in your own life, but enhanced by polite charisma that serves as both Robert’s spine and a “victimize me!” sign slapped on his back. In a cheaper movie, the southerners would all prey on him as the outsider in their midst, a typical horror angle since always. The Visitor has more imagination than that.
Unfortunately, not much more imagination, because Simon Boyes and Adam Mason’s screenplay arrives at a thuddingly routine destination. Lange at least gives their writing care through thoughtful, sometimes painterly craftsmanship. At only about 80 minutes in length, the film doesn’t have time to dawdle, but Lange makes his shots count for as much as possible: One early scare, a dream sequence that ends with a blind ghost screaming in Robert’s face, is approached with deliberate dread and carried out with terrific design. The waiting as we watch the scene unfold is the very particular joy of horror. We know something is about to happen that falls under the umbrellas of “freaky” and “spooky,” but knowing is offset by the build-up, so we end up feeling freaked out and spooked anyways.
After storing up goodwill with its construction, melodrama and lead performance, The Visitor pulls back the curtain on its narrative, and its revelation, put vaguely, is a bummer. The film does leave a little breadcrumb trail to follow for those who can’t wait to find out who Robert is and how he relates to the painting. Maybe the tiny red flags are a visual apology for a failure to think outside of expectations: The subgenre that The Visitor occupies is passé, insomuch as any horror niche ever truly goes out of style. The problem with the movie is what might have been instead of what is.
Director: Justin P. Lange
Writer: Simon Boyes, Adam Mason
Starring: Finn Jones, Jessica McNamee
Release Date: October 7, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.