[S]omething is happening here
But you don’t know what it is,
Do you, Mr. Jones?
— Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”
Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) certainly doesn’t know what’s happening. Neither does she want to know. When Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) tries to explain to her that an unknown lethal “event” is occurring across the east coast, she stops him short: “The world don’t care about me, and I don’t care about the world.” Mrs. Jones lives alone in the remote wilds of Pennsylvania, out of place and out of time with the contemporary world. She is, unsurprisingly, bat-shit crazy to boot.
Alas, Elliot doesn’t have much choice but to stick it out with Mrs. Jones. He and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), along with his best friend Julian’s (John Leguizamo) daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), need a safe redoubt from that event he mentioned. After fleeing Philadelphia and shedding themselves of the rag-tag group of up-till-then survivors they met along the way, they now hope that Mrs. Jones’ remote cottage might offer some sanctuary.
Even as they come to see that salvation is unlikely, they also learn that the effects of the happening are gruesome (there’s been much ballyhoo in the press about the film’s “R” rating, the first for one directed by M. Night Shyamalan). The event involves the dispersal of an unknown neurotoxin that attacks the chemicals in the brain responsible for self-preservation, so that infected individuals become immediately and spectacularly suicidal. I’m not so sure this explicitness helps The Happening much. The long scene of construction workers jumping to their deaths off of a Manhattan skyscraper is admittedly excellent; the thuds of their bodies shockingly literal, their shattered bodies and twisted limbs repugnantly real. The scene of a man offering himself to be devoured by lions in the Philadelphia Zoo, on the other hand, is notable only for its amateurish green-screen work, and the sight of a man lying down in front of an industrial lawnmower is just plain lame.
The film’s non-gory suspense (one of Shyamalan’s trademarks) is much creepier. The threat of a lethal atmospheric event allows the director to stylize the physical environment. Rarely have clouds drifting overhead and wind blowing through trees and a sunny day been filmed so ominously. The concept itself is effectively daunting: after all, how does one out-run the wind? It’s a question that makes Elliot and Alma keenly anxious, even while they pointedly do not vocalize this concern to each other. They just keep running.
Along the way, they mull over what could possibly be going on. The couple, and the media to which they intermittently have access, initially surmise a terrorist attack. Of course. It’s good old American hubris; we couldn’t possibly have anything to do with this disaster, it must be the malicious intent of some foreign Other. This knee-jerk terrorist theory is quickly dismissed, however, leaving paranoid theories to kick into high gear. Could it be connected to honeybee colony collapse? Might is be some side effect of the dozen or so nuclear power plants that dot the east coast?
The movie hints as well at other, less environmental degradation-related explanations. Might this mass suicide be a mutation of cellular suicide (“programmed cell death,” to the scientists)? Maybe this is nature’s answer to overpopulation, thinning the herd that is depleting the earth’s resources. I can imagine a neoconservative argument that the event is the result of cultural anomie; without strict norms and morals, anything can result, even mass suicide. It might be no coincidence, as Elliot repeatedly repeats, that the outbreak started in urban centers; maybe New Yorkers and Philadelphians just had enough, their drastic actions inspiring a vast swath of Americans to follow their suicidal lead.
All possibilities, however half-baked or far-fetched, are held up for consideration by Elliot. A high school science teacher, he’s dedicated to empiricism and rationality; we see him drilling the steps of the scientific method into his students’ heads at the start of the film. The trouble is, science can’t explain everything. When one of Elliot’s students, Jake (Robert Lenzi), hypothesizes that honey bee colony collapse is simply “an act of nature” that “we’ll never fully understand,” you suspect that Elliot’s convictions will soon to be shaken to the core.
This being a Shyamalan movie, however, such uncertainty cannot stand, and so Elliot emerges with his faith in empiricism intact. We have to have the “twist” after all, and in this Shyamalan has become slave to his own master trope. Unfortunately, as in all of his previous films, the surprise is less than satisfying and the nature of the “event” much less provocative than the many other possible explanations posed by the rest of The Happening.