At this point, I am more than willing to meet M. Night Shyamalan half way. In fact, I’ll meet him three quarters of the way. Hell, you know what? — I’ll meet him at the end of his driveway, or even on his porch, and I’ll get there by walking uphill all the way, while bent over backwards. Just please – throw me a bone, M.! Give me some sort of hope, some sign (guffaw) that you care even a whit about me, out here in the audience. Me, willing to fork over my attention and my time and my cash; willing to suspend my doubts and give you their benefit; willing to give you just one more chance — one more! – that you may recapture that brief brilliance you evinced in 1999, and have spent the last decade willfully squandering.
I’m not here to bury Shyamalan, not just yet. That’s for others to do, and they’ve done well enough already. But neither am I here to praise him. I liked The Sixth Sense well enough the first time through, and I liked how the legendary “gotcha!” moment sort of upends everything that came before it — except not really (it‘s essentially an empty parlor trick mostly devoid of deeper meaning). And I will maintain my minority status as an apologist for The Village and its creeping, atmospheric, inchoate terror, against its legion of vitriolic detractors. However, both Unbreakable and Signs disappointed and infuriated me (respectively), though they were both at least ambitious and structurally rigorous in their failure. Accuse them of lapsing into self-parody in their final frames, they were not shoddily made films.
The Happening, on the other hand, is almost alarming in its across the board sloppiness — in its shoddy composition, in its wildly inconsistent tone, and most damningly through its characters and dialogue. It’s such a shocking drop off in quality and workmanship, I wondered at times whether the film was perhaps incomplete, wrested from the director’s hands before completion.
But no, per Shyamalan, interviewed in one of the bonus features, it’s all quite deliberate, this mess, as he claims to have been trying quite consciously to make a B-movie. Or this may just be him trying to cover his bases. No matter. Those pillorying The Happening (once again, legion) are spot on this time. In fact, The Happening offers so much to dig in to, it’s impossible to know where to even begin ripping it. It’s all you can eat buffet master class in terrible film making, and it’s making me nauseous just thinking about it.
But let’s start with what happens. Some wags will tell you that, in fact, nothing happens in The Happening, and that that’s precisely its problem. But that’s not exactly true. Stuff happens, sure. There’s quantifiable narrative movement, but the accompanying tedium of it all, the lack of any sense of urgency in a very urgent situation, lulls you into thinking that you are, oh, I don’t know, watching the grass grow. And we do, sort of — watch the grass grow, I mean. And blow in the wind. We watch trees blow in the wind too. Bushes. Hedges. You get the idea.
So what happens is that, at precisely 8:33AM one sunny morning, some sort of mysterious airborne toxic event descends out of the blue and starts mowing people down in Central Park. The main symptoms present as confusion, repetition of words, standing stock still for a few moments, shuffling back a few steps, and then offing oneself with whatever is at hand. Some apply metal hairpins to their jugulars. Others opt for more conventional means: guns to the temple, jumping off buildings (the film’s one truly effective scene is the haunting image of construction workers sailing limply through the air before slamming into the ground). Panic spreads through the city as word spreads. Is it a terrorist attack? Some government experiment gone wrong? No one knows, but whatever is happening is spreading, quickly.
So, people flee the city, on trains to Pennsylvania. This is where our hero, science teacher Elliot (a perpetually stunned Mark Wahlberg,), and his wife Alma (a limpid Zooey Deschanel) are headed when they become stranded in a rural small town after their train loses contact with the rest of the world. Along with the other survivors, they trek further and further afield (literally – it’s all just open field after open field for most of the running time), in progressively smaller groups, as it appears that the attack is starting in large population areas, and moving downward picking off ever smaller groups.
About a third of the way through the film, Elliot and Alma meet some hippies who offer aid, and also a possible explanation for what’s happening, which is at the same time both colossally idiotic and kind of cool, at least in conception. I won’t reveal it here, but if it’s as willfully misanthropic as I hope Shyamalan conceived it to be, then kudos to him. (And if this in-film misanthropy reflects further on Shyamalan personally, it goes a long way to explaining his deliberate antagonism against audiences over his last five films).
So then, I have no problem with the film’s premise. It is a standard B-movie, survivalist-zombie-apocalypse type scenario, and there’re plenty of directions it could have gone and been worthwhile. People fleeing from an unknown, and perhaps forever unknowable, terror, is always a good time — or should be. Shyamalan’s problem is that he has no idea what to do with the one cool idea he cooked up — people spontaneously killing themselves for no good reason — and thus lurches about, throwing anything that occurs to him on screen, hoping that it will stick, and meanwhile giving no thought at all to the basics. Character, story, tone — all are either thrown out the window, or are so lamentably inconsistent that from scene to scene you wonder if you are watching the same film.
The low level thrum of dread which used to be Shyamalan’s one key (and maybe only) strength is either mostly absent, or completely undercut by the goofy inconsistency of the lead performances. But even that would be somewhat forgivable if it all wasn’t completely done in by a script that almost seems a mockery of human speech. I can’t fault the actors at all here. Shyamalan is a notoriously hands on director, placing such constraining strictures on movement and speech that the actors may as well be marionettes (which, all puppeteers reading this, my apologies). The stunted, wooden line reading drains any scrap of humanity out of the characters – they are impossible to root for, to have any affection for. They are barely recognizable as human.
I wish I could enumerate all the instances here of just how very terrible The Happening is scene by scene, frame by frame. I wish I could show all the most damning clips, write out word for word lines of dialogue that no human being could ever possibly conceive of uttering, but I fear that now I’m becoming as equally tedious in my lambasting of Shyamalan, as it is watching his latest work.
But here I end my hopeful pleas at last. The horror has to stop at some point. We can’t keep letting him get away with this. And we can begin with our eyes and ears, averting them, blocking them. We can vote with our feet, and if the returns on The Happening in theaters are any indication, the last of Shyamalan’s fans have. And if worse comes to worse, and no escape is possible, we can take the hint from the film itself and run ourselves over with a riding lawnmower.
So wouldn’t you know it – the one time I actually quite desperately want a director’s commentary track, and Shyamalan refuses to comply (I think he rather famously refuses, like Spielberg). But I have to know, scene by scene… WHY?! Why did you shoot it this way? Why are these characters saying That?! Alas. The bonus features, while not skimpy, aren’t revelatory in any way – well, except in this one instance. There’re a handful of deleted/extended scenes, each introduced by Shyamalan. After giving his spiel for the first, before cutting to the scene, the camera catches him glancing quickly at his watch. This is telling, and entirely apropos, and maybe displays some self-awareness, finally.
Most of the extras seem to focus on the upped gore and violence quotient of The Happening compared to Shyamalan’s other films. This was deliberate, and he seems to be obsessed with getting a hard R rating, to the detriment of making a coherent, watchable film. You can almost see the bloodlust in Shyamalan’s eyes, and he even rubs his hands together menacingly, and cackles with delight, at several points discussing it. In fact, he seems to think that The Happening is some new watershed in gratuitous onscreen bloodletting – you wonder if anyone has tipped him off about what’s been coming out of East Asia for the past decade.
To be sure, The Happening is a very violent film in patches – but what Shyamalan is aiming for is emotional impact and resonance of violence, and here he just falls way short of the mark to the point that I’m starting to question whether Shyamalan himself is human. As I mentioned, the early scenes of people killing themselves are eerie in their… casualness, but long about the point where some random guy wanders into a lion’s den (literally) to get himself dismembered, I’d long forgotten any horror and was already chuckling at the hokiness of it. Stick to your strengths M. – keep everything off screen and in the dark.