Stopping by for "The Visit": Taking Mr. Shyamalan up on His Kind Invitation

The Visit (2015)
Dir: M. Night Shyamalan
TC4P Rating: 6/9


Let's face it. For the past few years, M. Night Shyamalan may as well have added a "B." at the front of his famous name, not only for the perceived quality of his output by the general public after The Village, but for the collective dump that many critics have taken upon his career.

The Village was indeed the last Shyamalan film that I saw in a theatre. While I had intentions of seeing Lady in the Water when it was released, it never happened (and I still have yet to see it). The advance word of mouth on The Happening and The Last Airbender were enough to make me wait until video for them, which is not how I usually operate when choosing movies, but it worked out for me in this case. Finally, After Earth looked remarkably stilted and dour for a sci-fi adventure in its trailer, and while I will see Will Smith in a film if the mood is right, I have no regard at all for his born-on-third-base son, who is the actual lead in the film. Again, waiting until video worked out for me, except for the whole part of actually having to endure After Earth.

So, how did I end up at the theatre the other day to watch Shymalan's latest offering, the creepy grandparents horror piece, The Visit? A free ticket, of course. I had one free ticket left, and rather than use it on something I really, really wanted to see -- like Black Mass, Sicario, The Martian, or The Walk -- I decided to use it on a horror-related film, as is befitting the season. The Visit had been at the theatre for almost a month, but for the past week had been relegated to just two early afternoon showings, so I figured it would probably be gone by Friday. (Surprise! The film is suddenly back to five showings a day for another week. Not sure why.)

And the result? A surprisingly enjoyable and pleasantly creepy thriller. I don't know if he is back to full fighting form, but Shyamalan thrives best when he pulls back on some of his worst instincts -- chiefly, including himself onscreen -- and keeps his tendency towards dramatic story twists, which I actually like, intact but doesn't oversell it when they happen. Apart from some shocking violence, the film builds neatly and slowly, and spends a good portion of time endeavoring to throw the audience off the scent a bit. Shyamalan also employs some subtle tricks which he uses to play with the viewer's expectations, and it mostly works for him.

It is hard to say too much about the plot of the film without telegraphing parts that pay off later in the story. The set-up of The Visit is that the estranged daughter of a elderly farm couple, who have not seen her in nearly twenty years due to a mysterious argument, sends her two teenagers off to the country to meet their grandparents for the first time. The teen daughter, Becca, is an aspiring filmmaker, and hopes to use her time at the farm to make a documentary about this rift in her family. The son, Tyler (or T-Dub), is a wannabe rap artist, and the film is filled with scenes of him improvising rhymes, but always ending them with a misogynistic "ho" or "bitch," even when the rhyme is about something far more innocent. While the old couple are overjoyed at first to see them, the kids are told to stay out of the basement and to not leave their bedroom after 9:30 p.m. Becca and Tyler gradually become obsessed with finding out what is really going on around the family farm.

The film gets excellent mileage out of its use of a non-"A" list cast. Kathryn Hahn, as the estranged daughter, is the most recognizable face here for me. It took me a good while to come around on her -- when actors play characters generally meant to annoy me, as she has several times, I often turn against them as actors -- but her recurring, supporting role on Parks and Recreation over a couple of seasons allowed me to grow to appreciate her talents. She has the least amount of screen time in the film, mostly reporting in to the kids via Skype, but she is a solid presence. 

Peter McRobbie apparently has played a judge many times in the Law & Order franchise, but I can't speak to that. I do know him from his recent turn as Father Lantom in the new Daredevil series. Here, he really kept this viewer on edge with the dramatic turns his grandpa character would take in a split second. As the grandmother who may possibly have several secrets up her sleeve, Deanna Dunagan, a Tony Award-winning actress for August: Osage County, has the toughest role, and she responds in a major way. I found her captivating throughout the film, as Shyamalan has her doing some very strange things throughout her performance. I hate it when actors are described as being "brave" for doing things on a movie set, but yeah, some of the actions she is called upon to perform had to have taken her out of her comfort zone. Or she is just one weird lady in real life.

I am not quite as keen on the combined performance of the teen actors, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, which is a shame since they are the lead characters, but they do a serviceable enough job. While I did point out Oxenbould's rapping scenes (there is even an additional one included at the beginning of the credits), that is not to say that I enjoyed them; I didn't, in fact, and if that detail about Tyler needed to be included, then I feel it should have been made less prominent. But even Tyler being a white gangsta wannabe (not a fan) didn't stop me from feeling terrible about a really disgusting thing that happens to Tyler late in the picture. I refuse to divulge what, but it is astoundingly sick on Shyamalan's part. The one thing Tyler does that I did really enjoy is when he decides to replace all of his cuss words with the names of pop divas (Shania Twain!), which helps relieve the tension in a couple of scenes, and is along the lines of dumb stuff I used to do (hell, still do) when toying around with language.

If you are tired of the found footage genre, you may feel compelled to give this one a pass, but rest assured, it is not a non-stop banquet of nausea-inducing, shaky cam shots. Using Becca's documentarian dream as a frame for the film actually works well, and the kids are more apt to use the camera on their laptop or place the camera in a hidden place than carry it around and point it haphazardly (though the shaky cam does also occur sporadically in certain key scenes). The film creates genuine tension from many of these static shots, and thankfully, The Visit is not filled with idiotic jump scares of the sort that make me hate modern horror (and also hate the easily appeased fans that thrive on those types of non-scares and have driven filmmakers to include them). As for the payoff, yes M. Night gives us his habitual twists, but handles them wisely, and concentrates most of his attention to making the story the most important part of his film.

Is M. Night Shyamalan back? Well, he didn't go away so much as we chose to start ignoring him, but he shows in The Visit that he can still craft a creepy, atmospheric tale, and best of all, still knows how to keep viewers on their toes. We don't get that feeling a lot anymore, so why shouldn't we see where he goes after this?



Comments

EggOfTheDead said…
I, too, was skeptical and waited a while before seeing this one. When I didn't hear a loud chorus of, "Shyamalan still sucks!" online, I figured it was worth a (matinee-priced) shot. Don't really have anything to add that you haven't already said.

Shyamalan nailed the found footage genre in The Visit with an intelligent, whole, narrator in the midst of a real story. I wish more filmmakers got this because I like found footage. Usually we get the stock, idiot characters with nothing to say dropped into the stock reality show/abandoned asylum/remote forest full of shaky cam and jump scares. Shyamalan really ramped up the suspense for me because all his characters were sympathetic and - as best they could - meant well.

Speaking of found footage, I recently enjoyed The Barrens (2012.) Looks like I'm almost alone there, though!

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