‘The Happening’ movie review: M. Night Shyamalan disaster movie is half-brilliant

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Strange, unsatisfying, yet exceedingly well-crafted, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is a compelling and challenging film that will likely polarize audiences. 

Among the director’s previous work, the film ranks a notch below Signs and a notch above The Village, and let’s all pretend that Lady in the Water never happened. Still, fans expecting another Sixth Sense will leave disappointed.

Picture starts out ominously in Central Park, with two young girls on a bench; one of them is acting strange, screams ring out, all foot traffic stops. In scenes of deadpan terror, people begin to kill themselves: one of the girls stabs herself in the neck with a hairpin, bodies drop from buildings, gunshots ring out. Something is amiss. 

Cut to Philadelphia, and science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) lecturing his class about disappearing bees. News of a possible ‘terrorist attack’ hits, and teachers and students are sent home. Elliot, wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), friend and coworker Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s young daughter decide to leave town and head for Julian’s mother’s place in the country. 

The event…continues to happen. Theories are devised. Julian decides to head to Princeton to look for his wife, leaving his daughter with Elliot and Alma. They head further West, and encounter groups of people just as confused as they (and we) are.

Two things will determine your appreciation of the film: the first is the journey it takes you on, which is riveting – most of the way, at least, before things bog down a bit towards the end; comparisons can and should be drawn to Spielberg’s recent War of the Worlds. 

It’s compelling stuff: you may not like the feeling of the director toying with you, but I dare anyone not to stick through to the end. The second is the ultimate explanation for the events, which is more difficult to defend, and revealed in such a slow and unexpected manner that you’ll likely leave the cinema not convinced of precisely what happened. 

Suffice it to say that I was satisfied with the explanation and the message it conveys, and compared to Shyamalan’s previous films, the revelation was handled in a refreshing manner. But I left wanting so much more (note: I’m being vague here to avoid spoilers – if you do go to the movie, don’t read up on it too much; I imagine the key revelation will be revealed in most reviews.)

The suicide scenes are filmed disarmingly straight-on, without a hint of subtext; the director never explicitly tells us what we should be feeling, and some audience members may not know how to react; indeed, even at a press screening, giggles crept through during scenes of construction workers tossing themselves off a high-rise, a man feeding himself to lions, and another lying down in front of a lawnmower. 

Some will (inaccurately) attribute these scenes to unintentional comedy, without giving much credit to the director. But there’s a lot of David Lynch at work at what Shyamalan’s trying to do here, which challenges us to think: those who don’t know how to react will comfort themselves with laughter. For others, these scenes are scarier than any elaborate cinematic techniques could make them.

Acting is effective, nothing more; unfortunately, we never really get a chance to care for these characters. Betty Buckley nearly steals the show as a strange old woman they encounter late in the film. 

Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto captures the rural Pennsylvania landscape beautifully. Music by James Newton Howard is ominous, effective, if not particularly memorable. 

While most of what the director does here is effective, there are a couple of slo-mo shots that don’t work, and two death scenes are handled – in direct opposition to the suicides – in an overly melodramatic fashion.

For what appears to be a deceptively straightforward film, Shyamalan toys with us more here than he has done in the past. The film is half brilliant. But the other half is very, very frustrating. 

Many will resent the experience; I enjoyed being pulled along for the ride, and appreciate what the director has attempted.

The Happening

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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