A Visit with M. Night Shyamalan

Introduction

For 61 Days of Halloween, as well as for my posts categorized as Shyamalan Week (these usually lead up to, or surround, one of his new releases), I usually do some posts that are formatted a bit differently.

It’s with that I commence discussing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit. As per usual with Shyamalan, I go in depth and may reveal plot details you’d rather not know, so spoiler alert. Forewarned is forearmed.

The Visit (2015)

The Visit (2015, Universal)

The Visit has a simple set-up: two kids, aspiring filmmaker, Becca (Olivia DeJonge), and her irreverent younger brother, Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), are going to spend a week with their grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deana Dunagan) to get to know them as they are long estranged from their mother (Kathryn Hahn). It’s a scenario that allows for a stripped-down, character-driven relatively shoestring take from M. Night Shyamalan, and it’s also a perfect vehicle for found footage.

As do a lot of other found footage premises, so what makes this one work?

Auteur Theory

M. Night Shyamalan (2015, All Rights Reserved)

Knowing a director’s work can be a double-edged sword, to Shyamalan for me; I feel it always works as a benefit. Here what ends up occurring is that you’re put in the mindset of a Hansel and Gretel (Not the witch-hunters) tale immediately through the set-up that’s reinforced by the marketing but it ends up being the first of the film’s misdirections.

Shyamalan works some of his common touches better in this film than in many of his others including the ones with the most similar occurrences.

In no particular order they are:

  • Mom’s full story about the fight that lead to her leaving home, along with the fact that she is a single mom is reminiscent of The Sixth Sense.
  • In this film the tale of sports-related trauma is more organically folded in and involved the climax than in Signs.
  • When Grandma is stalling to tell the truth about her relationship with her daughter the tale she tells in its place, that sounds like lunacy, is not unlike The Lady in the Water.
  • The inclusion of Sundown Syndrome, a strange and fairly rare affliction, is also a recurrent theme most notably employed previously in Unbreakable.
  • Lastly, Pop Pop’s tale of the white creature with yellow eyes he saw at the factory reminds me of the creature in The Village.
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Way back when, I forget if this was on At the Movies or in an article, Roger Ebert exclaimed that M. Night Shyamalan’s Pennsylvania was beginning to be a cinematic analog of Stephen King’s Maine. Here Shyamalan goes to Masonville, PA. Even as someone who lived in the state for four years it’s still a marvel to me how vast and expansive to me. It’s certainly a larger in-state playground than King has.

There are all touches that delighted me, and there’s a sort of active engagement, what-next urgency to my viewings of his films (most of them) that have me rapt regardless, like a kid listening to campfire story.

So far as his dovetailing he’s not only filmmaker who does so, and that’s also like a King story. With regards to the moviegoing public there seems to be a strange phenomenon with Shyamalan where certain people keep going to see his movies though they may not necessarily want to. It’s like sports fandom: you believe your team hasn’t been good in years, and maybe never will be again, but you still won’t give up your season tickets.

Performance, Tonality and Character

The Visit  (2015, Universal)

It manages to successfully shift tones and close-out all aspects of its narrative appropriately. It’s unquestionably both comedy and horror (the inclusion of Hahn and Oxenbould was a hint even beforehand). However, unlike many horror/comedies it does not struggle in either aspect and it does find equilibrium.

It excels mostly because Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould are both inordinately exceptional and achieve the unique tricks of appearing natural as if the camera is just rolling, being believably awkward when the moment demands it, and also entirely inhabiting their characters.

They have many memorable moments: the companion coerced confessions, freestyle rapping, and Oxenbould when snapping out of freezing in a rage are dream takes for an actor and director both.

The Visit (2015, Universal)

DeJonge’s interpretation of Becca is that of clearly intelligent girl without a note of falsity or petulance, heartbreaking in her embittered memories of her father. These two are really the glue that holds the film together.

This is not to discount Peter McRobbie and Deana Dunagan. They provide some of the needed laughs as well, all the necessary scares which are very effectively delivered, and even one heart-rending moment. Their feat is also not limited as their physicality is a triumph for both.

With a cabin fever aspect to the story, and a lack of a supernatural element, character is at a premium and remains so. The characters are explored even more than the plot is built but both are slowly revealing themselves sometimes it’s even subsumed in seeming temporary nonsense.

The Visit (2015, Universal)

Even in the conclusion where Tyler is allowed to do his closing freestyle rap (Shania Twain, bitches!) and Becca is looking into the mirror, her former aversion to such and the trauma that started that behavior were previously established. We see the growth and progression of both.

Newfound Footage

The Visit (2015, Universal)

This film takes a few tired found footage tropes and injects some life into them, as well working a few tried-and-purported-to-be-true ones better than prior acclaimed films of the technique.

Incessant documentation is a new reality that is becoming more accepted by society with less and less backlash with each passing day, therefore one of the past requirements of this technique is already passé.

In differentiating itself from the newer brood of the found footage approach it both doesn’t ignore the cameras to its detriment nor does it obsess over the “Why Are We Filming This?” Conundrum.

With regards to the past it does at times it seem to echo The Blair Witch Project with dramatic moments in corners. It also takes what was the entire basis of at least two Paranormal Activity films, distills it into one chilling scene; and thus condemns the former to the purgatorial state of anti-cinema wherein it belongs for all eternity.

Conclusion: The Visit Twists

The Visit (2015, Universal)

The Visit is a film that deals with creatures both real and imagined, the real being people, the ghosts of this tale being figurative. It’s a film where I was not waiting for a twist but rather reveals, but this one is successful because it was just sitting there waiting to be discovered like some others, but is highly organic and intrinsic to the plot. Furthermore, little morsels of prior information that seemed meaningless before ring true after it.

Another way for a viewer to ruin their potential enjoyment of a film is to be expecting a twist and constantly trying to ferret out what it is. What would happen if there was none? It’s like going to see an adaptation of a book and constantly be referring to your mental checklist about which favorite parts were included and which were edited out. It occludes you from focusing fully on what’s before you because you’re worried about parallel problems.

How many given endings can a story really have in cinematic terms? In most movies, especially Hollywood releases, you know how things will go. You’re there for the journey.

The Visit (2015, Universal)

Previously I discussed how at least Shyamalan is consistently giving us something to talk about, something a lot of people can’t even claim, which is noteworthy at the very least. I still want to discuss, and watch, and I wanted this visit to continue and enjoyed it greatly.

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