When the credits rolled on The Happening, I remember sitting in my seat feeling very confused about what I had just seen. To call it bad ignores the film’s trickier facets. I want to dispense with the idea that M. Night Shyamalan is a talentless, egotistical hack that just got lucky. Lucky filmmakers don’t enjoy the run of success he achieved. You achieve that kind of success because you’re good at what you do. The Happening, I think, was an effort to create something different, but it became something bizarre.
On a clear day in Central Park, the wind whispers across the grass and all the people freeze in place. They start talking gibberish. They begin walking backward. Soon, they’re stabbing themselves with hair picks and leaping off tall buildings, all players in an escalating, mindless terror.
Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) learns of the devastating phenomenon as he wraps up his Pennsylvania high school science class. School is canceled, the phenomenon spreads, and all the larger cities across New England begin to empty. Moore meets up with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his friend Julian (John Leguizamo), and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) to hop a train out of town and join the exodus.
As their train zips across rural Pennsylvania, anguished half-heard cell phone conversations clue us in to the growing chaos. When the train stops, Moore learns that the phenomenon has already reached the miles that lay ahead. Suddenly, there’s nowhere to run.
While all of that might read like an exciting yarn, every thread ties together to create an experience that’s more awkward than it is riveting.
One of the more obvious problems with the film, and they are myriad, is the rating. Trade reports told us that when M. Night Shyamalan turned in his script for The Green Effect, 20th Century Fox suggested it might work better as an R-rated thriller. All of Shyamalan’s previous work fit nicely in the PG-13 niche. An R-rating, however, created certain expectations. It didn’t necessarily mean that the film would lean toward the kind of hyper-violence of the Saw films, but it did hint that Shyamalan might decide to blacken the darkness his stories tended to carry. After Lady in the Water, it was intriguing decision. Shyamalan reportedly went back to work on the script. When he retitled it The Happening, apprehensions began to resurface. What was Shyamalan up to this time? Could he manage an R-rated feature? Some of Hitchcock’s best work went on to earn the R rating. Maybe Shyamalan had found what his bag of tricks needed to stay fresh.
Hichcock’s genius, however, relied on making the audience believe there was more to see than what was actually there. Spielberg did the same thing on Jaws; Ridley Scott did it with the original Alien. Shyamalan himself used the technique in the past. The Happening ignores any such restraint as it seeks out ever more creative and bloody ways for people to kill themselves. The knot of tension Shyamalan creates in the first minutes just wears thin upon endless repetition. The rating does compliment one shocking moment at the close of the second act, and Shyamalan manages, if briefly, to create genuine terror as the psychological aspects of the story’s events affect the rural populace.
The cause of the phenomenon receives underwhelming exposition. Dialog stumbles and trips all over itself, which is surprising given the cast, as well as Shyamalan’s reputation for directing his on-screen talent. Wahlberg, Leguizamo and Deschanel know how to perform, and yet nearly every line in the film receives treatment somewhere just above the level of a high school drama rehearsal. The misplaced cadences and pinched whines sound bizarre against such tragic and deadly events, so bizarre you’d have a hard time convincing me that it wasn’t deliberate.
Which brings up the real enigma. Shyamalan generally asserts creative control over every aspect of his films, so you have to wonder why this film looks so uncanny.
A handful of moments recall the Shyamalan we pay to see. He keeps the scope of the disaster intimate, focusing on fewer characters rather than blowing us away with impressive crowd shots of mass panic. Another collaboration with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto delivers some impressive photography. A few character moments stick out as enjoyable while the rest only inspire guffaws.
There’s a genuine thriller tucked somewhere underneath the hammy lines and clichés. It does, at times, create the uncomfortable dread of an apocalyptic myth. It could be that Shyamalan wanted to explore the way some people collapse under the weight of despair. Not everyone can muster the strength of a hero when disaster strikes, and the film’s hero, Elliot, fails to rise to any measure of heroism. Maybe this is the way Shyamalan imagined T.S. Eliot’s whimper at the end of the world.
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan