Sunday, June 15, 2008

In Theaters: The Happening

Poster taken, as always, from
I almost feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. Almost, of course, because he’s still a professional filmmaker and I’ve done some things with THE MOVIES, but he may be the most unappreciated filmmaker still able to make major deals. LADY IN THE WATER was, of course, run over the coals because, well, he killed a film critic in the movie and cast himself as an important writer figure; the film was not without flaws but you barely heard them discussed up against the not-actual-aesthetic-problems mentioned above. THE HAPPENING had bad buzz right out of the gate and seems doomed from the start, which is a shame. Mostly, I feel sorry for Shyamalan because he’s a talented and imaginative man working in a style that went out with black and white television. It’s amazing he managed any success at all, but he’s making conceptual melodrama in an environment that is totally not geared for it. Personally, I like this sort of thing, and THE HAPPENING is a solid thriller on that level, creating a strong atmosphere and providing several good shocks despite a certain lumpiness. To be sure, M. Night has certain tendencies to overcome, but I like what he’s doing here, and it’s worth catching.

The plot is as follows. One Tuesday morning, people in Central Park, NYC, start killing themselves for no reason. They become disoriented, then quietly and methodically find the most efficient way to end their own life. The phenomenon starts to spread. A New York school teacher (Mark Wahlberg) hears about what’s happening, and takes his wife (Zooey Deschanel), a fellow professor (John Leguizamo) and his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) out of town on the quickest train to Philadelphia. But Philadelphia is quickly hit as well, as is New Jersey, as is Boston, as is the whole Northeast. The train is halted in the middle of nowhere, and our protagonists make their way cross-country, trying to get out of the area of “attack”. The phenomenon, whatever it is, seems to target groups of people, starting with cities and moving to towns and roads and smaller clusters. It also may have something to do with the plants, and the disappearance of bees. The characters find themselves trying to outrun an invisible force, something on the wind that is never quite predictable.

Shyamalan has hit upon a great concept here, as he often does. What, precisely, we’re dealing with is never fully defined. It probably has something to do with plants, it’s almost certainly airborne, it’s strangely localized, and it makes people destroy themselves. The feeling of dread that’s created is palpable because you can never quite tell when things will get worse. I spent a good portion of the film waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I was somewhat obtuse in my earlier comments about Shyamalan’s style, mainly because this is something I need to get into heavy detail about. To put it simply, I believe that M. Night Shyamalan is heavily influenced by THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and not in the simple sense that his movies often have twists in them. (For the record, this one does not.) If you watch THE TWILIGHT ZONE today, what’s noticeable is not just the way the plots turn but how the whole thing is basically contemporary social drama in genre dress. And by contemporary, I mean the dramatics of the fifties and sixties, of Arthur Miller and PLAYHOUSE 90. It’s not naturalistic in the least; it’s a style in which characters are broad and quirky, in which themes are explicitly raised and discussed, and in which everything is, well, slightly theatrical. This, I believe, is Shyamalan’s own approach. He is not a realist, which is a problem because one generally aims for a kind of realism (or at least verisimilitude) in thrillers in order to more easily engage the audience. He is working on this broader, more conceptual, and let’s face it, old-fashioned level, where advancing the idea is more important than making you believe it’s actually happening.

Now, personally, I like this. I think it’s a valid approach, and I like the energy it brings to a project. THE HAPPENING is not a cynical or nihilistic film in which we’re here to watch people whimper as evil overcomes them; it’s more about what’s going on than our helplessness. Though it never fully defines what the problem is, it raises ideas, and provokes thought about how nature will react.

This comes at a price. As I said, it’s not close to realistic, and this mostly shows in the acting. There’s a certain dazed, stiff quality to a lot of people, arguably justifiable by the sheer shock of what’s happening, but it does make it hard to connect. Mark Wahlberg, who has given some very fine performances in the past, is the weak link; all of his readings are slightly off, and I can’t say if that’s his or Shyamalan’s fault. Certainly the director can be faulted for making everyone’s speech so damn declarative; if some of the dialogue were more conversational it would flow a lot better, even if we missed some of it. That said, and this isn’t really a defense, there’s a positive upshot to all this; because everyone’s a little off to start with, you’re never quite sure when the “happening” will take them and they’ll become genuinely doomed. Most of the people look and act like they could snap at any time, and the blasé fashion in which they meet their deaths is genuinely terrifying.

Okay, the one part I’m going to unambiguously slam is the denouement. It’s unnecessary, we know from the start how it will end and as such it takes too long to get there, and it makes far too explicit what was implied well enough by what came before. There’s an obvious point where this film should end and you will all recognize it. I guess either Shyamalan or the studio or a test audience felt it was necessary to clarify things. Bah. Also, yeah, that title’s a bad one. A happening is something that takes place with the aid of LSD and sitar music, and I’m fairly sure these elements are absent from this movie. (Could have been at the end of the credits for all I know.)

To be sure, M. Night Shyamalan could stand to improve in some areas. But he’s doing things in the thriller genre that nobody else is doing, and that need doing. THE HAPPENING is an earnest revisiting of the “nature’s revenge” genre, executed thoughtfully if a little sloppily. I was scared at times, blackly amused at others, and overall provoked to think. This is good. I think this guy is onto something; let’s hope his career doesn’t end before it develops.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Grade: B+

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