Unexaggerated, Hauntingly Naturalistic Spell

After his phenomenal breakthrough success with The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan made one superb follow-up with Signs. Somehow, Shyamalan had to experienced a sensational fall from critical and commercial grace, partly through his last two movies, The Village and Lady in the Water, which were downright atrocities. His twisty endings went from truly surprising to subtly shocking, and recently to completely dull and senseless. Therefore his latest feature, The Happening, released on Friday, June 13, 2008, deliberately planned to fall on Friday the 13th, as his first film to earn an R-rating in the US, looks to be about the kind of film Shyamalan knows best. Like Signs, the film focuses on a global phenomenon and its effects on a small group of people.

This time around, the funny, dark and irregular gimmick the director has come up with involves some vicious payback from the natural world. The entire northeastern part of the America has awoken one morning to the fury of Mother Nature as a pandemic of unknown cause is spreading across the northeast, mysteriously within well-defined borders. People are dropping dead en masse on the streets of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston and the unexplained enemy here is wind-borne and unseen. It might be a terrorist attack, a government project gone awry, or an inexplicable natural phenomenon. Its first effect on humans is the speech loss, the second physical disorientation, and the third fatal. The next thing we know, people all over the eastern seaboard are committing acts of self-annihilation. Death comes arbitrarily as people jump from buildings, shoot or hang themselves. One feeds himself to lions in the zoo and some cut themselves with barbed wire or glass. Civilization and human psychology breaks down when Mother Nature is on the warpath. Those unaffected escape west. Among them is a young couple of an infantilized high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) and his semi-committed wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) with their relationship far from the healthiest. They travel with a friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), and decide to board a train heading westbound. After the train crew loses contact with everyone they decide to discontinue the trip and the passengers are stranded in Filbur, Pennsylvania. The toxin begins to show up and people around them begin to get affected. Julian entrusts them with his daughter when he goes off in search of his missing wife. The epidemic spreads with them and they must avoid populated places by crossing through fields on foot, never sure what they’re running from. Plunged into a horrifying struggle for survival, they saunter around trying not to contract a suicidal urge while people fleeing this event are being whittled down throughout the story.

Oddly affecting and contemplative, The Happening is an effective thriller because it features some genuine moments of suspense, and because the premise is logical. Reasonably paced, quietly realistic, and stimulatingly engaging, it goes further to really thrills and horrify as it explores a new ground. At its heart, this is a suspense film, effective in taking innocent aspects of nature and making them terrifying and almost inescapable, and though Shyamalan is not the new Hitchcock, he is among the contemporary masters of suspense because this film definitely pushes the right buttons in the suspense department. One of his strengths, evident here, is that he knows how to withhold enough information and to strengthen the quietness with well-timed frights. Fully avoiding his now famous twist ending convention, Shyamalan reveals the story’s secret early and sticks with that explanation and follows trudging thriller conventions, maintaining much of what is brilliant about him. Loaded with Shyamalan’s style, the arresting visuals, the mood suggestive of dreams, the awkward dialogue, the eccentric, erratic, and peculiar end-of-the-world scenario, the touches of earnestness and capricious humor, this film has long, static shots, a lot of staring, and intense music. His use of the landscape is disturbingly effective as he accentuates the strangeness of starting a day in New York and ending it by hiking across a country field, with America depicted as a curious mixture of modernity and timelessness. The recurring sound of the breeze and the sight of it ruffling the trees or blowing across the grass are sinister, with an image of tension in which the sight and sound of wind in the trees have a similarly momentous, unsettling impact. The visual violence is a striking new feature in comparison to Shyamalan’s earlier works. The Happening relies on suspense, with plenty of shocks but no pompous special effects and the cumulative impact of its unsettling premise and the suggestion of what’s happening off screen. The script is challenging, skillful, and effective, combining fear of suicide, the impulse behind panic syndrome, fear of terrorism and fear of environmental retribution in a way that has a distinctly eerie impact. Shyamalan allows his characters space and time to look within themselves because he still has the ability to explore a character-driven story.

There’s a scene of departure from Manhattan where Shyamalan eschews all the conventional scenes of riots in Grand Central Station. People do not kill one another for train tickets. The population are quiet, uneasy, and fearful, probably because they do not know what they are fleeing. There’s a scene with people on a train who start getting calls about an attack. The entire thing is uncannily accurate and completely chilling, as a realistic situation should be. He also captures the essence of this perfectly.

Wahlberg plays overly sensitive yet resilient Elliot as his earnest, committed presence anchors the story, giving it a sense of purpose, who smoothly navigates the pitching comedy, a eccentric and comic monologue. He’s mostly confused and indecisive because he’s not genius-smart or pushed to any superhuman feat He actually breaks down and cries like a normal person. Together, Wahlberg and Deschanel bring a quiet dignity to their characters. Their relationship is faltering and makes their way from place to place, seeking sanctuary. There’s something bizarrely childlike about both characters. Alma is charmingly mischievous and slightly flighty while Elliot brings a forced mild craze to himself, who, despite being a science teacher, is a long way from an embodiment of the rational. Conversation and interaction reveals that they have recently had major argument. Phone calls, and later a confession, brings to light Joey who Alma went out with recently and has been talking to since. Along their journey, at one stop, Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) asks them, “Who’s chasing whom?” This implies that Elliot’s and Alma’s relationship is one of imbalance rather than common center, of distance rather than union. When they are first introduced, there is the sense that she has just not been able to give up the idea of her single life. However, after Elliot, Alma, and Jess part ways with Julian and continue on together, Alma begins to step into a motherly role in which she actually puts Jess before herself because Julian tells her when he leaves Jess in her care, “Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it.” After Alma takes Jess’ hand, and she continues to hold it, the message is clear that when one enters into any relationship, and really mean it, one must not only recognize the value of life, but also the value of others.

In many ways, one of the central themes of the story is relationship. One of the theories presented to explain the events is that plants are actually at the center of it all. Human beings have become too much of a threat to the plants, and they have responded by striking back. One may say human relationship with Mother Earth is unhealthy, or our abuse has finally gone too far, and as a result, what we get in return is not pleasant. Though much of the story is enigmatically unexplainable, one thing pellucid throughout is the idea that the balance of our world affects the events that occur in it. The essence of that balance rests primarily in the relationships that breathes and endures between us. When relationships become unhealthy, either with anger, conflict, or threat, their effects can be utterly destructive. On the contrary, when they are healthy, when we walk towards each other instead of away, and when we start giving to each other instead of taking, the beauty of the life that grows from that is almost enough to wipe out the memory of even the greatest disaster on earth. At one point in their journey, a teenage boy tells Elliot , “You need to take personal responsibility for yourself in a relationship.”, and in many ways, that may be what the story is calling us to do. We must take responsibility for our role in all of the relationships of which we are a part. This proves relationships of love, connection, and harmony are so significant, as Elliot says when he and Alma find themselves physically separated, “It’s not right for it to end like this. If we’re going to die, I want to be with you.”, and he is right. To live in a fractured and fissured world is wrong.

Certainly, it’s not beyond the realm of comprehension that one day vegetation might exterminate us, that after centuries of abuse by man, vegetation would simply turn its back on us. The film’s pace and substance allow us to examine such thoughts, and to ask how we might respond to a wake-up call from nature. Daring, refreshing and genuinely scary, The Happening, Shyamalan’s simplistic New Age circumscribed apocalypse, works as well as it does as and  he is at the top of his game. It’s a return to form, and compared to his last two efforts, this feature is certainly a step in the right direction. On the surface, it may be described as empty, uneventful, meandering, but at its core, it weaves an unexaggerated, hauntingly naturalistic spell as a tantalizing parable about the menaces that human beings might face from unexpected quarters. Anyone who is mature enough to reflect on it will find it enjoyable more and more.

Rating: 3.5/5

To see The Happening in theatres, check your local listings, or visit the http://www.thehappeningmovie.com/

Criticetc is a journalist and critic in Bangkok and Pattaya, and blogs at http://blog.nationmultimedia.com/betweentheframes/

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