| The Happening


M. Night Shyamalan

USA, 2008


Review by Rumsey Taylor

Posted on 28 August 2013

Source Fox DVD

Categories Favorites: The Apocalypse

Seated at press junket for his 2010 film The Last Airbender, director M. Night Shyamalan eyes the journalist who asks the following question:

[Your career] had a very strong start. However, the audience has lost its faith in your work, with [the unenthusiastic reception of] Lady in the Water and many of your more recent productions. Airbender feels like you want to captivate the audiences again by becoming more commercial. Am I right?

Without so much as a blink he retorts, “I think if I thought like you I’d kill myself.”1

Shyamalan’s combative response reads petulantly given the nature of his 2008 film The Happening—the last film that bears his triumviral contributions as writer, director, and producer. The Happening exhibits a clearly pornographic interest in suicide and depicts it in a medley of forms: a man enters a lion exhibit at a zoo and approaches its felid inhabitants until they become agitated and yank off his limbs; another man comes upon an industrial lawnmower, starts its ignition, and lies down determinedly ahead of its path; finally, and absent a more immediate and elaborate means with which to end her life, a woman bangs her head along the outside of her house until she bleeds to death out of her face.

These scenes are complemented by the score, which is of a piece with Bernard Hermann’s brand of cyclonic string arrangements and blasts of woodwinds. The music is intent to compel the viewer’s astonishment, which is ostensibly the correct response considering the events that contrive the film’s violent moments: mysteriously, entire arrays of mentally sound people have begun to kill themselves without a word of warning. In accordance with the same influences as its score, The Happening is a depiction of the sort of unknowable environmental threat that comprises Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, only without the birds.

At his best, Shyamalan demonstrates a Spielberg-like faculty in honoring a child’s capacity for imagination, and has rendered child characters that are central, if not essential, to his narratives. The Happening, approached as a sort of response to his downplay in acclaim, was for Shyamalan far more brutish than his previous efforts. It lives solely in the world of adults, in which children are rendered - in the eyes of Elliot, the science teacher who is the film’s primary character - naifs that must be towed through the abstract natural disaster that lends the film its suspense.

Shyamalan has also elicited strong, pathos-invested performances from the adult actors in his movies, most specifically Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Mel Gibson, and Paul Giamatti, who in sum comprise a singular characterization: a mid-life, blue-collar male who must confront some sort of supernatural threat only after the more grounded and tragic circumstances of his life are established—divorce, estranged or perished loved ones. Add to this roster Mark Wahlberg, who plays the aforementioned science teacher. He’s playing essentially the same role as Willis, Gibson, et al., only he’s handicapped by the lack of a tangible threat to him and his family. Much of the film hinges on his expression of total and constant incredulity. It’s a response that Shyamalan would prefer his audience to share, and it is certainly available to the viewer set aghast by the film’s numerous and operatic deaths. The film is replete with characters gazing in disbelief at each other and at nothing in particular, and when they do see something, it is often grievous in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher movie without any famous actors. The events that astonish Elliot are so elaborate, so exaggerated as to border on ridiculous, that our response, contrarily, is a gathering desire to laugh.

As a result The Happening, however pitiable within Shyamalan’s oeuvre - of which I am admittedly a fan, if only for my great esteem for Signs - is an estimable work of camp because its maker is so self-serious and its material so unbecomingly inept. The title, for example: it’s a sufficiently mystified description of the circumstances in the film, but it plays comedically each time it, or some conjugation thereof, is reiterated in dialogue. The dialogue, in whole, becomes increasingly exclamatory, a barometric measure of the characters’ excited disbelief, as when Elliot and his wife witness a mass suicide firsthand:

We can’t just stand here as uninvolved observers!

I need a second okay? Just give me a second!

We’re not gonna be one of those assholes on the news who watches a crime happen and not do something! We’re not assholes!

If The Happening is to be construed as a continuation of Shyamalan’s brand of suspense and preoccupations - which is pronounced in his name, emblazoned upon the film’s poster like the author of a checkout aisle fiction novel - then it fails to incorporate the one element that granted him renown in the first place: restraint. For all the flack he’s encountered as a practitioner of twist endings, Shymalan has proven adept at sustaining suspense before the twist is revealed, propelling his narratives on only a modicum of information and investing his narratives with uncertainty. The Happening, however, is jolted forward with jack-in-the-box suspense, traipsing from one garish death to another in a parade of cartoonish terror. The film has an appreciable and macabre ingenuity in this light, a modern exploitation film and honest, if miscalculated, in its intention to frighten.

  1. YouTube video of the press junket
More Favorites: The Apocalypse

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