Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Visit

** out of ****

Through some critics and audiences, M. Night Shyamalan is seeing what I would call an unearned comeback through The Visit, which is his latest film after a long string of idiotic thrillers that had lost him a lot of respect. I’ve never seen a director’s career like his. His early films (mainly The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) were so absolutely strong that I would have never anticipated such aimless fantasy (Lady in the Water) or such inept direction of human behavior (The Happening) from the same director in later films.

For a director whose career has been a needless letdown, the choice to delve into found-footage filmmaking is an obviously terrible idea since that entire subgenre has been almost as disappointing as Shyamalan. This trendy and inexpensive approach to making a movie seems rather desperate on his part, but it also seems to be paying off for him at the moment.

The Visit is about a couple of kids (Ed Oxenbould and Olivia DeJonge) sent to meet their grandparents for the first time. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) is eager to go on a cruise with her new boyfriend and after reconnecting with her parents via social media, she has decided to send her children on a train to stay with them in rural Pennsylvania.

The “found footage” perspective is provided by the older sister, who is an aspiring filmmaker bringing along cameras to document their visit. After meeting the old couple (The amazing Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) at the train station, they’re taken out to a remote home where despite a welcoming impression, are provided a questionable curfew as well as boundary rules. When these rules are defied, the kids witness their grandparents displaying some very odd behavior, which is rationalized as senility.

This movie has three obvious problems: 1. The setup of a loving mother sending her own children to stay with their grandparents, from whom she ran away a decade ago, isn’t the typical first step for making amends with one’s kin. 2. The behavior exhibited by the old couple very early in the film would be enough to send any child running to the next closest farm house, even if it could be legitimized as dementia. 3. The documentarian ambition of the older sister to continue filming every terror she encounters defies any relatable sense of self-preservation.

With the suspension of disbelief ready to implode during most parts of the movie, there’s almost no involvement to be felt, but I will not deny the movie has a few big scares. A lot of situations, no matter how ridiculous are well staged and the actors all do great work.

There’s a major argument among some critics that this movie is a very dark comedy. The movie rests on an arc of sincerity that makes it impossible for me to see it as such. I see the humor in the insanity of its campy scares tapping into buried repulsion some audience members may feel about the elderly, but I found it to be in bad taste.

I take no issues with horror movies that aim for smutty politically incorrect concepts, as long as they commit to an R-rating so the movie may wink at its adult audience. This movie, however, is PG-13, which essentially invites the whole family to join in on the “old people are nasty” scares and I find that somewhat morally repugnant. Having the younger brother be a wannabe rapper as comic relief, so that he can do bad raps about the creepy old folks, is maybe as cringe-worthy as the R-rated gross-out moments that infiltrate the conclusion to the movie.

Shyamalan may have our temporary attention with this film’s weirdness, but this is not a return to form; it’s a product of weak storytelling with no concern for plausibility and continues to his abandonment of rich aesthetics and deep passion for well-constructed suspense - which he practically mastered once upon a time. My only hope is that a little positive encouragement from this movie’s success may inspire him to make good movies again.    

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