The first 10 minutes of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening are among the best work he has ever done. With tense, ruthless economy he establishes normal, everyday life in New York City's Central Park: people walking their dogs, jogging, sitting on park benches and reading. Two women are talking, and one of them oddly repeats when she just said. It's a small glitch in an otherwise normal moment, but then things start getting weird. All the people on the sidewalk come to a slow stop and just stand there. Some start walking backwards. And then the woman on the bench slowly takes a long hairpin out of her hair and, for no discernible reason, jams it into her neck. From there, the nightmare starts escalating, spreading outward from Central Park, with the opening act ending on the haunting image of construction workers blissfully stepping off high-rise girders in a seemingly choreographed ballet of death.
In case you missed any of the previews or didn't see the movie posters in which the film's rating is printed in red, this is R-rated M. Night Shyamlan territory. Shyamalan has done movies about ghosts (1999's The Sixth Sense), invading aliens (2002's Signs), and mythical monstrosities lurking in the woods (2004's The Village), and one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker has been his ability to evoke without showing too much. Shyamalan is probably better than any living filmmaker at the art of suggestion--of creating a sense of presence and eventually making you think you've seen more than you have--which is why I suspect some viewers end up angry with his films: In some sense, they work too well, even when they're slightly off-target. In The Happening, Shyamalan shows us more--much more--but even with the increased bloodshed he still manages to be more evocative than gory. As the suicides become more and more grisly, he finds different means of evoking the horror without rubbing our noses in it (for example, we see a zoo employee willfully offering himself to a pack of lions on an iPhone, which gives it a queasy sense of realism because it is precisely through such media that most people see awful imagery).
Once Shyamalan has established the seed of an apocalypse, we are introduced to the protagonist, a Philadelphia high school science teacher named Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg). When word gets out of the strange happenings in New York, people start evacuating the city, fearful that it is some kind of biochemical terrorist attack that is causing people to kill themselves. Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) meet his friend and fellow teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian's 8-year-old daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) at the train station. They eventually wind up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, and as the event continues spreading outward from New York, hitting smaller and smaller communities, they try to flee what seems to be the inevitable by going into the woods and the fields. Thus, the film opens in the heart of the largest city in the U.S. and winds its way to the country's most remote areas, suggesting that safety is an illusion we can pursue, but not necessarily maintain in our troubled era.
After 2006's baffling Lady in the Water, a jumbled mess of a movie that many saw as the Shyamalan's ego running horribly amok, The Happening is a strong return to more stable genre material. Like his best work, it gives us familiar material--in this case, the revenge-of-nature horror movie--that he approaches from a contemplative distance. He avoids many of the kinds of crowded, hectic scenes that other filmmakers would likely consider essential and instead focuses on individuals and their varied responses to an extraordinary moment (in this sense, it is very much the cousin of Signs). Some will likely consider the second half of the film too meandering, as Shyamalan whittles down his cast of characters until we are stranded in a remote farmhouse with Elliot, Alma, Jess, and a batty, possibly deranged old woman (Betty Buckley) who has clearly been living by herself for far too long. By this point, literally anything could happen, which is what makes the scenes crackle.
The Happening does have its weaknesses. I have already suggested that this a revenge of nature film, and without giving too much away, I will note that some people may have issue with the film's explanation for what it going on. It makes perfect sense in its own way, but some may find it hokey. I found it quite fascinating and disturbing, particularly in the way it allows Shyamalan to invest so much dread in something as simple as wind blowing through a field (assuming you've bought into the premise, of course). Shyamalan lays on some elements a bit too heavy-handedly, including what should be subtle imagery of humankind's assault on nature (e.g., a greenhouse is literally dwarfed by a massive nuclear plant in the background). The performances are all subdued, which may not have been the best approach for Mark Wahlberg, who tends to go flat when not given a flamboyant character to play. Yet, I found his responses to the situations, as well his troubled relationship with Alma, to be believable and affecting, which provides enough focus to hold the center while the world around them seems to go stark raving mad.
Copyright 2008 James Kendrick
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All images copyright 20th Century Fox
Overall Rating: (3)
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