Something Is Happening And You Don’t Know What It Is… : M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening

November 20, 2008

d. M. Night Shyamalan

Not the turkey I was led to expect by all the negative reviews, The Happening is a slow-burning, moody eco-thriller with many memorable and visceral scenes and some decent performances all around.

One of Many Memorable Images

One of Many Memorable Images

The movie tells the story of an unexplained rash of suicides in the North Eastern region of the U.S., and as the survivors, including an elementary science teacher (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife (Zooey Deschanel), make their way out of the infected zone, the possibility of the deaths being the result of a terrorist action become less and less likely.

While Mr. Shyamalan’s lustre has dulled quite a bit since he made a splash with The Sixth Sense, with many missteps and a reputation as “The One-Twist Wonder”, he recovers some shine with this movie. Plausibility is low and suspension of disbelief is high, but once you accept the premise of this film, it is quite a thrill to see how far he will take us.

If anything hasn’t let me down about Mr. Shyamalan, other than the quality of his scripts, it is his usually excellent choice of actors, and the confidence of his story-telling. He makes great use of Mark Wahlberg casting him against type as a teacher who rises to the occasion on the possibility of the end of the world. And Zooey just looks lovely, her wide blue eyes speaking volumes to her innocence and vulnerability to the invisible threat. And John Leguizamo, in a brief role, makes excellent use of his screen time, providing the film its most tragic character.

Where the film trips up is in Mr. Shyamalan’s corny and stiff sense of humour, as well as inexplicable goofy characters. Mrs. Jones, played by Betty Buckley, who appears towards the end, is uneven at best and comes off larger than life and inadvertently gets some laughs.

Shyamalan is at his best when the dialogue is given over to just visual story-telling. And there are many memorable images, all of them pertaining to the death scenes from which he doesn;t flinch and earns his hard R-rating. Bodies casually dropping to their death or a man calmly laying down in front of an industrial lawn-mower really speak to the director’s twisted imagination.

The only lame and unconvincing death is the zoo attack captured on an iPhone. Lame!

Spolier Alert! The Next Frame Is R-Rated!

Spolier Alert! The Next Frame Is R-Rated!

The revelation of the threat is no real surprise (I actually was tipped by AICN when the script was making the rounds as The Green Effect), but the ending where love literally makes you immune to death is touching if naive and speaks volumes to the director’s sensibilities (i.e childlike).

In any case, if he can continue making films along this track (and stay the hell away from Unbreakable 2), then I look forward to his next effort.

*** stars.

Next up, a pair of Agatha Christie adaptations, and a battle of the Herecule Poirots as Albert Finney takes on the Murder on the Orient Express, and Peter Ustinov tackles a Death on the Nile.

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