Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Visit (2015) - Movie Review

M. Night Shyamalan is one of those directors that it’s safe to dislike, given his most recent output. I mean, sure, The Sixth Sense has one of the most culturally-ingrained twist endings of all time and Unbreakable continues to be a cult classic, but nothing he’s been attached to since even comes close to that. Whether it’s the masterpiece of unintentional comedy that is The Happening, the fan betraying mockery of The Last Airbender, the vanity hack job of After Earth or even the mass of misguided ideas in Devil, Shyamalan has turned from one of the most promising filmmakers in Hollywood into an utter laughing stock. However, even with how horrendous the aforementioned films could get, I still can’t help but feel sorry for the guy after all this time and just hope that he can stage a comeback one of these days. So, when news of this film hit and apparently audiences in the U.S. were starting to warm up to him again, maybe there’s a chance that he has found a way to crawl out of the shite-encrusted mire he’s dug himself into. This is The Visit.

The plot: Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are going to stay at with their grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) for a week, and Rebecca is filming a documentary detailing their stay and their family history, particularly an incident involving their grandparents and their mother (Kathryn Hahn). However, once it becomes night-time, they start noticing their grandparents acting more than a little strange. As their actions grow weirder and weirder, the kids start to wonder if they’re even going to survive the night, let alone the entire week.

One of the major reasons why I honestly think that Shyamalan has gotten the short end of the stick from the industry (prior to his utter lack of fucks to give when adapting The Last Airbender) is that his films, even his properly good ones, have always been badly promoted. Unbreakable was promoted without its dramatic superhero plot in mind and instead it was made to look more like The Sixth Sense, The Village should have been depicted with the romance plot put to the foreground instead of Those We Don’t Speak Of, The Last Airbender’s trailer deceived by making us think it’d be good; that kind of thing. I bring this up because this film might have the most damagingly misleading trailer of any of Shyamalan’s films to date. Rather than the tense ghost story we see in the trailer, it is in fact a horror-comedy. Why this is such a bad sell for the film is that, because of Shyamalan’s reputation of late, his more recent fare have gained reputations for being unintentionally funny; as such, whatever comedy appears here could very easily be misinterpreted by audiences as yet another failed attempt to be serious.

Instead, and this is something kind of vital to understand in order to properly watch this film, this is the first time in a long time that the weirdness happening on screen is actually supposed to be funny. At first, it’s funny in that awkward ‘those darn kids’ kind of way, given the characterisation for Rebecca and Tyler. Tyler is a wannabe rapper who is the butt of many wigger jokes throughout and Rebecca is a budding filmmaker whose espousing about the art form comes across like Shyamalan is determined to make sure that the audiences knows that he knows how films work. Then, as the actions of the grandparents get more and more crazed, it starts turning into Texas Chain Saw-brand of dark humour, mixed with some weirdly realistic reactions from the kids concerning what they witness. Where Cameraman McDouchenozzle failed in The Gallows at commentating on the action, these kids succeed.

Speaking of things Shyamalan is determined to make his audience think, it seems like he also wants to right his previous wrongs and remind us that, beyond his missteps, the man is damn good behind the camera. For starters, he goes after one of his bigger issues concerning his method of directing. Now, even at his worst, Shyamalan has always had a knack for visual direction; actor direction, not so much. The actors always perform every line, be they dramatic or comedic, in the same flat tone that can make it difficult to discern the tone of a given line of dialogue. This reached its absolute nadir in The Happening, where Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschannel turned into dead-eyed robots and turned a supposedly tense thriller about man versus nature into one of the best ironic pleasures of recent years. Now, this style of direction can sometimes work to his advantage, like with Unbreakable, but that only works for specific kinds of stories, i.e. not the ones he’s been telling for the majority of his career. Here, we might have the most lively cast of characters that have appeared in any of his films: Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan play the ‘fun and kooky grandparent’ angle to both its lightest and darkest extremes, Ed Oxenbould continues to prove himself as a capable child actor as he manages to make his initially annoying white rapper persona endearing and Olivia DeJonge flexes some unprecedented dramatic muscle in the scenes involving her and her mother, both on and off-screen.

Another sign that this is an active attempt on the director’s part to stage a comeback is that he makes more than a few passing references to back when the public agreed that he was capable of making good films. Considering the heavy backlash that came his way as a result of The Village, and Shyamalan’s subsequent breakdown in the face of it all, we’ll call Signs the last film that he could be proud of for the sake of this analysis. There’s a scene where Nan tells a story involving aliens and water which, coupled with a character moment of redemption involving sports, seem a little coincidental unless he was actively trying to reference his good old days. Hell, with the aliens and water story, it’s almost like he’s reaching for self-parody with just how ridiculous that story element was in hindsight in Signs. Then again, this could all just be mere coincidence and I could just be seeing patterns in things that aren’t there. By the way, how many words are there in this review?

The choice to go with found footage here seems a bit trendy, considering not only the genre’s current prevalence but also Jason Blum’s attachment to the film as a producer, but credit is definitely due to how the gimmick is handled. For one, the edits made and the reasons why the film is presented as it is are given a more realistic context than most others, that being Rebecca’s attempts to make a documentary around the trip to her grandparents’ house. What’s more, the reasoning for why she is making one, lest it just devolve into a bout of plot convenience that is never truly addressed, makes for some genuinely good character drama between her and her mother. It also helps that the script has elements of self-awareness surrounding it, given Rebecca’s dialogue involving getting shots specifically for dramatic effect. I remember back when George A. Romero tried to do a similar thing with Diary Of The Dead, only with far lesser results. Yeah, this is the kind of film where I’m comparing the "What a twist" guy with the godfather of the zombie film genre and the latter is losing in the comparison. Things are getting pretty surreal in these here parts.

All in all, I had real scepticism about this film going into it: Oh sure, M. Night Shyamalan is going to redeem himself for all of the atrocities he has inflicted on the movie-going public and start making decent product again. Well, while this doesn’t quite make up for his recent failings, this is at the very least a giant leap in the right direction for him. His direction seems actively trying to improve himself, even managing to correct some of his more prevalent mistakes, the acting is among the more lively in his filmography and the writing hits horror and comedy at the right moments and often overlapping to create nice mindfrag material. I can only hope that this isn’t a fluke and that this is a sign of good things to come. Even if it’s just so I can see someone rise from the ashes to become a reliable creator again, I definitely recommend checking this out; just be sure to remember that this one is supposed to be funny.

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