‘The Visit’ review: M. Night Shyamalan almost makes a comeback

10 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Visit’ proves to be enjoyably flawed.

The biggest unexpected twist in a new M. After his career broke open with two arguable horror/superhero classics, Shyamalan directed two flawed but interesting follow-ups, before descending into a series of misfires across several genres.A family get-together starts out strange and quickly enters nightmare territory in “The Visit,” a horror-thriller that turns soiled adult diapers into a motif.

Somewhere between “Lady in the Water” and “After Earth,” most of us forgot what we liked about this guy. “The Visit” is in that “flawed-but-interesting” category, a much more enjoyable film to watch in real time than to think about on the way home. Night Shyamalan – that is, for anyone who sees his career as having gone downhill ever since he scored big with The Sixth Sense in 1999 – The Visit may represent something of a comeback. He hit rock bottom with 2010’s The Last Airbender and 2013’s After Earth, and you couldn’t blame the guy if he simply retired for good to lick his wounds and escape the neverending snark. Bush was in the White House, Vanessa Carlton was on the radio, and you couldn’t tweet about how cool you thought “Signs” was because Twitter wasn’t even around yet.

If nothing else, The Visit brings a touch of originality and freshness to the found-footage horror genre, which Shyamalan takes to as if it’s been his stomping ground for years. By the time the onetime brand-name filmmaker began to endure searching articles about why studios were hiding his name from his own movie’s promotional materials, the creative fall of the former next Spielberg seemed complete. Kathryn Hahn, as the divorced mother of teenage siblings Becca and Tyler, played by Aussie actors Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, left home at 19 to be with an older man and, a conflict and fight having ensued, hasn’t spoken to her parents, played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie, ever since.

Notwithstanding the evidence of Shyamalan’s features since the pitch-perfect “Sixth Sense,” hope endures among fans that lightning will strike twice. Fifteen-year-old budding documentary filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her 13-year-old wanna-be rapper brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are going to visit their grandparents, whom they’ve never seen.

But the grandparents manage to track her down and request that their grandkids come pay a visit to their Nana and Pop Pop, whom they have never even met. In the wake of disastrous recent outings “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender,” that hope takes on a particular fervency with this modestly scaled return to straight-up genre fare. So Mom sends the kids to their grandparents’ isolated farmhouse in the woods in a small Pennsylvania town for a week while she goes on vacation with her new boyfriend.

Excitement will initially drive theatrical business for “The Visit,” as will the lure of sheer horror fun, at least until word-of-mouth stems the box-office tide. Fifteen-year-old Becca, an aspiring filmmaker who wants to use her skills to solve the mystery of why their mother is estranged from her folks and perhaps mend the family’s fences, brings her cameras along to document their journey, alongside the germaphobic 13-year-old wannabe-rapper, Tyler.

The movie’s scrappy horror elements are more unnerving than scary, and they mostly serve to enhance its grim sense of humor, not the other way around. Especially Nana, who not only does plenty of nocturnal sleepwalking, but appears to be suffering from a mental disorder called “sundowning,” which affects her behavior after 9:30 at night. From that point on, the energy, warmth and nuance of her performance is reduced to intermittent Skype sessions — a crucial element to the story, but nonetheless a letdown for the viewer. Maybe that’s why one of her house rules – along with “Have a great time” and “Eat as much as you want” — is that the kids shouldn’t leave their rooms after 9:30 p.m. It seems that their single mom, Loretta (Kathryn Hahn), had a terrible fight with her parents years ago and stormed off, never to see or speak with them again.

By adopting a pseudo-documentary style, he dials down his usual intensity level and includes enough humor along the way for the film to qualify as a horror comedy. But there’s more to it than generosity; the camera-wielding siblings, budding auteur Becca in particular, sense an opportunity to make a documentary that uncovers the generational rift between their grandparents and their mother, who left the farm as a teen under circumstances she refuses to discuss. I figured out the twist in The Visit at exactly 22 minutes in, but that’s the problem with Shyamalan movies: because he’s so famous – or infamous – for his twists, it’s difficult to watch his films without analyzing every scene and attempting to reverse engineer the third act surprise. If we’re going to be even halfway honest with ourselves as audience members, both of these kids would have dropped their cameras and run for the hills during the second act, or used them as weapons in the third. Much of the success of “The Visit” goes to the cast, specifically to the two young Australians DeJonge and especially Oxenbould (“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”).

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti captures the sense of a nonstop work in progress, seen through the lenses of the kids’ video cameras and laptop, with reality-style interviews, off-center framing and night footage a la “Blair Witch.” Shyamalan uses the various devices to tiring effect and without conjuring the requisite deep chills. Another dubious Shyamalan trademark rears its head when the kids film each other digging into the pain of being abandoned by their father, where Tyler recounts how he froze during a crucial play in a football game and Becca admits she can’t look in a mirror. They display a very real sense of sibling chemistry and an almost improvisatory sense of comic timing that make their interactions a joy to watch even if what’s going on around them is typical haunted-house stuff. The movies preview the spiritual hokum and sentimentality that even his fans acknowledge cost his later films some of their bite, but they also suggest a young director whose storytelling impulses leaned more toward levity than austere suspense.

Likewise, McRobbie (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Dunagan (“Just Like a Woman”) play the grandparents with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek tone without spilling over into overkill. The result is almost always mechanical rather than exciting or funny, despite the actors’ layered performances — the self-aware kids, Dunagan’s otherworldly weirdness and McRobbie’s unnerving deadpan. Only a year after the release of Wide Awake, the writer-director suddenly abandoned his lighthearted roots to become known as a marquee director of solemn, humorless thrillers with last-act twists. Once the surprise is revealed, spooky tension is jettisoned in favour of full-on horror camp, although the ending manages to avoid the formulaic “ONE LAST SCARE!” tactic for something more gentle and relatable.

The writer/director shows his talent working with young actors, ramping up the precociousness of the two leads, then using their clever expressiveness for humorous effect when their overnighter with grandma and grandpa goes haywire. Shyamalan is known for his patented twist endings but, thankfully, he seems less concerned about it this time, instead focusing on telling a good, fun story in place of just conjuring a good gimmick. Within what’s essentially a single setting, Shyamalan and Alberti keep things visually diverse but cohesive, while Naaman Marshall’s clean farmhouse interiors avoid the common trap of excessive design. The movie isn’t without an emotional core, though: It’s Hahn’s mostly absent character, and although she’s called upon to deliver the heavy-handed moral of the story, she manages to make every moment she’s on the screen ring true.

Tyler, 13, is a germaphobe and aspiring rapper, who has decided that instead of using swear words, he will shout out the names of female pop stars. (“Shakira!”) Shyamalan made two nifty choices. The production design work in Pop Pop’s woodshed … And then the director Shyamalans the ending – his name is a verb at this point, right? – perhaps telegraphing the primary twist a little too much, but mostly sticking the landing. Merrill twists perfect tin-foil hats on his head along with his niece and nephew, and in a neat trick, Shyamalan gets both the biggest laugh and jump scare of his career out of the same scene: Merrill watching eerie TV footage from a Brazilian birthday party (“Move, children!

Even when Shyamalan put back on his serious face for The Village, his (ahem) underrated tale of a 19th-century village shrouded in fear, we still saw fine comedic set pieces amid all the brooding and period trappings. Consider the infamous “comedic” sequence in which Shyamalan literally throws a film critic to the dogs: And that brings us to The Happening, a comedy to everyone except perhaps Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. If his earlier humor had a warm, goofball sensibility, here he goes full-on prankster, which is clear from the first (but not last) glimpse of granny’s naked bottom. He undercuts every would-be horror set piece with a heavy dose of sneering humor, driven by unhinged cackles from Nana and blithe reassurances from Pop Pop that all will be fine—as long as the kids stay in their bedroom after 9:30. The Visit does have its share of regrettable jokes (there is a rapping preteen boy), but Shyamalan is having so much fun you can almost hear him giggling behind the camera.

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