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Friday, September 11, 2015

M. Night Shyamalan's Bar is So Low that "The Visit" Seems Like a Masterpiece. (But Really, It's Fun.)

Posted By on Fri, Sep 11, 2015 at 11:57 AM

A funny thing happened during M. Night Shyamalan's new comedy-thriller The Visit, which opens area wide Friday: The audience began to enjoy itself.

I shit you not. 

In a jam-packed press screening, no one seemed to recall (or frankly care) that this was a film written and directed by a man who, after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable made him a demigod among Hollywood auteurs, gave us a string of half-baked horror concepts, densely self-referential scripts, and gimmicky twists.

M. Night Shyamalan gave us very bad films indeed.

The Village had redeeming qualities — for my money, a really solid performance by Bryce Dallas Howard, lately rediscovered in Jurassic World — but Lady in the Water and The Happening were excruciating, downright stupid movies. (I never did see The Last Airbender). The fact that Shyamalan was conscripted to direct Will Smith's ghastly vanity project After Earth in 2013 seemed pretty much in keeping with the trajectory of his career. 

But now, The Visit, which is much more a black comedy than a true horror film, and which I'm guessing will restore quite a bit of M. Night's forsaken street cred. This is not only a film that is smart and scary. More importantly, it's a movie that is fun.

One big reason for its success? The children at the film's center. Shyamalan has found in the young Ed Oxenbould (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) a goofball child star as innately charming as Haley Joel Osment was innately cherubic in The Sixth Sense. Oxenbould plays Tyler, who prefers to be known by his hip-hop nom de plume T. Diamond Stylus, and he's the undisputed star of the show. He and his big sister Becca (Olivia DeJonge) gamely agree to visit their estranged grandparents for a week, to give their single mom (Kathryn Hahn) some time with her boyfriend. 

At the heart of this trip, though, is a mystery. Why did Becca and Tyler's mom run away from home, never to return, when she was a teenager? Becca, an aspirant filmmaker, is chronicling the trip to make a documentary of her mother's life and to obtain some measure of forgiveness on her mother's behalf. Becca knows there was an "incident" which inspired her mother's abrupt departure.  

But the trip doesn't go as planned.

As the trailers suggest, Nana (Deanna Dungan) and Pop-pop (Peter McRobbie, the priest in Daredevil), for that is how they are known — and by the way, let me go on record saying that's way off the mark. Shyamalan probably intended the Nana/Pop-pop thing as a kind of joke, but who calls their Grandparents, whom they've never met or laid eyes on, "Nana" and "Pop-pop"? Pop-pop? Really? What is this, Arrested Development? Hollywood is convinced that 40 percent of us call our Grandpas Pop-pop, and I simply refuse to believe that this is so. Pet peeve. — Anyway, they're deficient in pretty critical ways, and not just as grandparents.

Both are listing dangerously into senility. Nana in particular. She is afflicted, Pop-pop tells Becca in private, with something called "Sundowning." At night, she goes haywire. Deanna Dunagan prances around the home in her nightie, vomits uncontrollably, scratches at the walls and ceiling, groping at some unknowable specter. This is extremely scary.  

Becca and Tyler capture the demented behavior of Nana on their cameras. And though the found-footage gimmick seems contrived at first (as it always does), the imperative to document their grandparents' freaky descent lends it credibility. And Becca and Tyler, who initially can't help but poke fun at their grandparents' bizarre behavior, let the audience laugh right along with them. But they grow frightened as their week draws to a close, the deranged behavior becomes increasingly violent. 

I need not belabor the fact that there is what might be called a twist. We'd be up in arms if there weren't. But this one feels appropriately planted, more of an explanation than a gotchya moment. It's not as masterfully executed (nor as imaginative) as The Sixth Sense's exquisite revelation, but it's on the same plateau of believability, given the groundwork laid in the film's first two acts. 

M. Night Shyamalan is back in the saddle.  

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