Friday, September 11, 2015

In Theaters: THE VISIT (2015)

(US - 2015)

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cast: Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Patch Darragh. (PG-13, 94 mins)

M. Night Shyamalan's rocky road from once-adored wunderkind to piled-on pariah is nearing its second decade after a hubris-driven downward spiral that began with his spectacularly egocentric LADY IN THE WATER (2006) and last surfaced with the generally reviled sci-fi flop AFTER EARTH (2013). Shyamalan is back with THE VISIT and like seemingly every wide release horror movie these days, it's "from the producer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS." Judging from some of his recent career choices, it would appear Shyamalan is a glutton for punishment: anyone willing to take on a Will Smith family vanity project seems to be asking for it. AFTER EARTH wasn't very good, but it wasn't quite the apocalyptic bomb the reviews made it out to be, nor was Shyamalan's 2010 film THE LAST AIRBENDER, perhaps the apex of unrestrained and downright irrational critical and comments section Shyamahate. But for someone of Shyamalan's experience and reputation (he was, after all, once anointed "The Next Spielberg"), arriving beyond fashionably late at the Blumhouse dinner party to scrounge for found-footage table scraps six years after PARANORMAL ACTIVITY seems desperate and almost masochistic. Is he inviting hate from his detractors? Does he enjoy this?

Yes, THE VISIT is yet another Blumhouse-produced horror film of the faux-documentary/found-footage variety, and even as box office takes dwindle with each new one that comes along, they're so cheap to make with their usually unknown casts that you're getting more whether you want them or not. 15-year-old Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 12-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are Philadelphia siblings planning to visit their grandparents in rural Pennsylvania for a week while their divorced mom (Kathryn Hahn) goes on a cruise with her boyfriend. There's a troubled family history here: not only are Becca and Tyler still scarred by their father ditching them all to run off to California with a Starbucks barista five years earlier, but Mom hasn't spoken to her parents in over 15 years, after they had a huge falling out when she decided to run off and marry the kids' father against their wishes. The visit to the grandparents is not only to give Mom some time with the boyfriend (who the kids really like and would welcome as a stepdad). but also to reach out to the grandparents and try to put the family back together. All of this is documented by Becca, an aspiring filmmaker who uses terms like "blocking" and "mise-en-scene," and hopes to create a film chronicling the week with her mom's folks.

At first, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem like a nice old couple--a little out of touch ("They don't know who One Direction is!" muses Tyler), and with odd bits of behavior like Pop-Pop frequently visiting the locked shed and a momentarily ferocious Nana pursuing them in a game of hide-and-seek under the porch. They live on a farm and turn in by 9:30 pm. Pop-Pop tells the kids to stay out of the basement because there's mold, and to stay in their room after 9:30. Outside their room, in the middle of the night, a nude Nana vomits, crawls around the house, and claws at the walls. Tyler sneaks into the shed to find a pile of feces-filled adult diapers. Pop-Pop explains that Nana has a condition known as "sundowning," when the night brings dementia-like symptoms, and Nana tells them that Pop-Pop is embarrassed by his incontinence issues and keeps the diapers in the shed until he has enough to burn the pile. The kids are weirded out, but accepting of the explanations because "well, they're old and they live on a farm, and..." Things get more intense as the week goes on, and when the grandparents are out for a walk, a couple of visitors stop by to check on Nana and Pop-Pop , who volunteer at an area mental hospital but didn't show up on their last scheduled day.

THE VISIT hinges on the kind of third-act plot twist that made Shyamalan famous, but it doesn't really work here. For starters, it requires the local police to be complete morons, and it can't be explained away by someone groaning about "hick-town cops." What does work are a lot of the little details the director throws in: the character elements between Becca and Tyler that show the way siblings both love and hurt one another and how they fight but instinctively stick together when the shit hits the fan. They're children traumatized by the breakup of their parents' marriage: Becca is filled with rage at her father that she can't articulate and instead morphs it into crippling self-esteem issues that she masks with an affected, beyond-her-age vocabulary, while Tyler cites his bad performance at a little league football game for the reason their dad left, and his coping mechanism is germphobia, which a fumbling Shyamalan only brings up when it's necessary for the plot (like an encounter with one of Pop-Pop's diapers that, once seen, can't be unseen). Both of the young actors are quite good, particularly DeJonge, but Shyamalan too often dwells on the more grating aspects of Tyler, like his freestyle rapping, which gets entirely too much screen time and does nothing to endear Oxenbould (who looks like a young Dax Shepard) to the audience.

The biggest problem with THE VISIT rests on the shoulders of the man himself, M. Night Shyamalan. As someone who has said things like "Well, AFTER EARTH has it strong points," and "THE LAST AIRBENDER was a little better than I thought it would be," I wouldn't say I'm a Shyamalan apologist, but there seemed to be a herd mentality in the way critics have piled on his films of the last decade. Shyamalan's decision to make THE VISIT in found-footage format is its complete undoing. Of course, he throws in some shots that couldn't possibly be filmed by Becca or Tyler or any of their cameras. Of course, their cameras never stop rolling 24/7. Of course, the middle-of-nowhere house owned by Luddites with no TV, computer, or cell reception somehow has wi-fi so the kids can Skype with Mom. And of course, the climax involves a shaky-cam, tilted-angle trip into the dark basement. There's enough positives in THE VISIT in its characterization and the concept itself that it quickly becomes obvious that it would've worked significantly better had it been shot as a straight narrative instead of the faux-doc/found-footage format, which adds nothing to the story but frustration and requires the actors constantly showing off and playing to the camera.

2002 seems like a lifetime ago 
And in that realization, the truth becomes clear: M. Night Shyamalan is his own worst enemy. He had a good movie here, with a plethora of macabre and dark-humored ideas, but he can't resist shooting himself in the foot time and again by making the dumbest decisions possible, inviting scorn, negating the work of the two young stars and haplessly trying to cash in on a played-out fad that refuses to die. There's a reasonably decent little horror movie locked up in here, but Shyamalan has thrown away the key and with that, he's not so much the master filmmaker he was being touted as after THE SIXTH SENSE but rather, a troll masquerading as an auteur to the amusement of no one but himself. He's Uwe Boll with an Oscar nomination. The finale is disappointing, there's a typically cloying, sentimental coda, and then another rap from Tyler over the end credits because hey, let's make sure the audience leaves pissed-off and annoyed. Shyamalan could've saved a lot of time and just let those closing credits play over a static shot of himself flipping the bird. Even with all the positives that are there if you look for them, THE VISIT is his worst and most infuriating film yet. I have no more defenses of his work left in me. We're done here.

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