EXPECTATIONS: A small comeback for M. Night Shyamalan.
REVIEW: An M. Night Shyamalan film that is a found-footage film? Sounds like a recipe for disaster since neither of the two have not been through a lot of successful endeavours lately. I don’t need to go through the movies by Shyamalan that were seen as terrible (although I enjoyed The Village, thought The Happening was hilarious and Lady in the Water was so pretty daringly original that I just had to admire it) and the less said about found-footage films like The Gallows, the better. So when I heard that this was Shyamalan’s return to horror with a film that he funded entirely by himself, I was nervous but after seeing it, I had a lot of fun with the film. And unlike The Happening, the fun was intentional! It has been too long since I’ve seen a Shyamalan film with great acting, good scares and nicely constructed storytelling, but what makes this film different was that it had a great sense of humour that I never knew Shyamalan was capable of. Intentionally, anyway.
After seeing their grief-stricken mother (Kathryn Hahn) off, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), a 15 year old aspiring film-maker and her 13 year old aspiring rapper-brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are on a trip to Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) for the first time. Becca is filming the entire trip for her documentary about her family and apart from some signs of awkwardness like the grandparents not knowing who One Direction is or the signs of old age like bouts of forgetfulness, the trip seemed pleasant enough. Then the elderly couple start to act strange increasingly throughout the week until Becca and Tyler discover a secret that immediately sends them into escaping for their lives.
I remember watching two of Shyamalan’s last misfires, The Last Airbender and After Earth and I was shocked at how bad the performances were. Notice that I mentioned those two films because I am specifically referring to the child actors. Shyamalan used to elicit fantastic performances from child actors such as Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense), Spencer Treat Clark (Unbreakable) and Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin (Signs), but in the two disasters I mentioned, Shyamalan became blind. But here in The Visit, his eye for talent has come back with two fantastic leads. Olivia DeJonge is great as Becca, who reminds me of Wendy from Peter Pan. A girl who acts beyond her age to cover up her many demons and fears, and she DeJonge does it really well, especially in an interview scene between her and Oxenbould. Speaking of Oxenbould, he was a hilarious presence in film that provided much of the humour that Shyamalan was going for and he shares a tender filial chemistry between DeJonge and Hahn. The way he “acts” of children playing really made me laugh. But he also has great dramatic chops, especially in the climax. It is the two performances that makes the characters likable and makes it much easier for the audience care for their fate.
As for the supporting cast, Kathryn Hahn makes the most out of her small role as the mother with even the very minuscule action that she does like running alongside the train, seeing her children off, she conveys the perfect mix of love, goofiness and sadness. But the standouts were the grandparents, Nana and Pop-Pop. They both conveyed the perfect balance of senility and insanity, especially in the later stages of the film. Deanna Dunagan really immersed herself into the role with reckless abandon (she goes disturbingly nude at some points) that one of her best moments in the film is one I’ll imitate for a very long time. As for McRobbie, he’s more subtle and quite funny at times but he also has a crazy moment that I will always remember. Not only will I never look at old people the same again, I don’t think I can look at my 2 year old niece the same again.
The story seems simple enough in horror films, but the fear of senior citizens is one that rings true with us all (particularly when we were children), especially if the audience does not understand what senior people go through. Shyamalan tweaks the premise with many levels of misdirection and many moments of endearingly weird comedy. For example, he grounds the senior’s senility problems with actual science but twists our expectations of senility and almost certain insanity. He also tells his story as rendering it as a Grimm fairy tale (the Hansel and Gretel influence is apparent on the posters), a domestic horror film and a dark comedy and he pulls it off quite well. There are some tonal issues that could induce emotional whiplash, but I think it makes sense since when kids usually experience scary moments, they play it off with their own brand of humour.
Shyamalan also has his foreshadowing skills back too, which he used perfectly for Signs. Every little moment that is seen as a joke (like a simple I-Spy like game) turns into a threat or something that adds to the storytelling (like a joke on a policeman) as the film goes on and its fantastic to see, even moments that are childish and puerile. One joke I really liked in particular was a story that Nana tells Becca that involves extraterrestrials. Not only was it a joke on Shyamalan’s films (especially Lady in the Water), it adds to the climax in a great way. Some of the humour is definitely self-referential to Shyamalan as if Becca, the filmmaker is a surrogate of him. Like a scene of where she would put music that her mother likes in a supposedly touching moment, but it is in fact foreshadowing a later scene. It is those factors in the storytelling that makes Shyamalan a fantastic storyteller, reminiscent of his first three films. Shyamalan even adheres his storytelling to the found-footage format really well too, even making fun of it in some ways. Like when the kids would play hide-and-seek under the house or the inclusion of music in the film.
I am glad that this film was enjoyable as it was and I can’t wait to see what Shyamalan does next. One of the film’s major themes is forgiveness and end the review on a touching coda, I think we can let go of our angers and frustrations and forgive Shyamalan for his past films.
The performances from the cast are fantastic
The storytelling from Shyamalan is assured like his old films (even in the found-footage format)
The scares are fun and haunting at the same time
The humour is surprisingly well-realized
Tone shifts are quite jarring
The timing of the humour can be a bit off
Cast: Ed Oxenbould, Olivia DeJonge, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenwriters: M. Night Shyamalan