The Happening

The Happening (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 11/01/08

At this point, watching an M. Night Shyamalan is more an excercise in morbid curiosity than actual hope of seeing a good film.  It is possible that Shyamalan hit his nadir in his previous work, Lady in the Water (2006), in which his ego-stroking narrative placed him at the God-like apex.  With his career in serious doubts, he tries to strip it back.  A genre thriller.  Simple and straight-forward.

Oh yeah, and this time…it’s potentially gory.  This is his first R-rated film.

And there was actually a marketing campaign around such a silly thing.

This time there’s no surprise ending, per se.  The mystery of what’s “happening”, that people all over the Eastern Seaboard are suddenly committing mass suicide, is related to the environment.  It’s an eco-film.  The pseudo science behind it is a little hard to fathom, but no less silly than his easily defeated aliens in Signs (2002).

The best sequences are early on.  A couple of shots in particular.  When one workman falls from a high rise construction project, a crowd amasses, calling 911, feeling sympathy for their friend.  Then Boom! another.  Then Boom! another. Then Boom! Boom! Boom!  And the culminating shot, looking upward, as bodies just step off into nothingness and fall.  It’s an eerie image.

Also, there is a shot in stalled traffic, with the camera low, below the waist of the charcters who had just been introduced, suddenly start shooting themselves one-by-one with the policeman’s handgun.  One drops dead, drops the gun, the next strides into frame to pick it up and do the same.  Again, an effectively conceived scene, photographed with narrative impact.

But the film itself can’t hold up the intensity.  Shyamalan is no shock-guru.  He doesn’t pour on the emotional shocks nor the visual, nor the horrific, not even the shocking.  After a while, the killing and suicides are monotonous.  Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are typically bland Shyamalan good guys, meant to be read as your average Joes, people you know, sympathize with.  But it’s not interesting.  It’s not tense.

What is kind of interesting in Shyamalan’s work is his populating the stories with your pan-global nationalities as average Americans.  Also his setting his films in and around his native Philadelphia.  Oddly, the thing that struck me this time is his relationship between the city and the countryside.  In Signs and then again in The Village (2004), and again here, in the mass exodus away from the endangered cities, his portrayal of country life is one of hardcore throwback, a small-town, rural America verging on the delusional.

I am guessing that there is something going on between his city world and his rural universe, Shyamalan’s Pennsylvania is an odd place, backwards, unlike his suburban and urban soft Americana.  But maybe he’s right.  Maybe we should be afraid of nature.

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