In the wake of two flops — The Village and Lady in the Water — M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, The Happening, is an attempt to return to the success of his early films — The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Shyamalan remains — even in his failures — a remarkable talent, with a knack for evoking a sense of mystery and a mood of suspense. He also has a gift for capturing the tribulations of ordinary folks, situated between two worlds, the material and the spiritual, things seen and unseen.
The unseen predator in The Happening is a toxin that, beginning in Central Park and spreading down the East Coast, causes disorientation, near-paralysis, and the desire for self-inflicted harm. The central characters in the story are high school teachers Eliot (Mark Wahlberg) and Julian (John Leguizamo). When word of the crisis — initially attributed to a terrorist attack — reaches Philadelphia, Julian plans to leave the city with his wife and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), and invites Eliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) to join them. But Julian loses contact with his wife — who had planned to meet up with them later — and he goes off to find her, leaving Jess with Eliot and Alma.
Eliot, a science teacher committed to instructing his students about the scientific method and threats to the environment, doubts the theories being constructed to account for the toxin’s spread. With very little in the way of evidence, he starts to suspect that nature itself, specifically trees, may be turning against mankind — nature’s worst enemy — as part of an evolutionary development. Beginning in Eliot’s class session immediately before the crisis begins and continuing throughout the film, individuals recite a mantra that man can never hope to understand every Act of Nature. It’s not very good science — though no more outlandish than the science behind the 2004 global-warming drama, The Day After Tomorrow.
Willingness to embrace the inexplicability of natural phenomena operates in this film much in the way the mantra “you must believe the story” did in Lady in the Water. Although it does not feature mermaids emerging from condominium pools, The Happening does share Lady in the Water’s mythic insistence on mankind’s alienation from nature. The problem for both films has less to do with science than with the credibility of the plot. Shyamalan proves all too willing to substitute mantras for compelling storytelling.
Despite its preposterous plot — parts of which make no sense — the film manages to sustain interest and to build suspense in a number of effective ways. Shyamalan films certain scenes in remarkable and arresting detail. In one early sequence at a construction site in New York City, a worker accidentally falls to his death; as his co-workers call for help and gather around his limp body, another worker plummets to his doom. Then the camera looks upward from ground level to capture numerous suicides arcing toward the street below.
Not long after, the scene switches to a breezy park in Philadelphia. Pedestrians freeze suddenly. A policeman emerges from his car, takes out his gun, and puts a bullet through his own forehead. The gun lands a few feet from his corpse, and is picked up by a pedestrian who does the same thing — and so it continues. Shyamalan does not show the gunshots or the wounds. Instead, he shows a hand picking up the gun — and after a few footsteps, we hear the sound of a gunshot, and another body falls to the ground.
The indirect depiction of violence in this scene is characteristic of Shyamalan’s work. Yet, this film merits its R rating (a first for a Shyamalan film), because the director abandons his characteristic restraint in later scenes, and portrays violence with graphic directness and intensity.
At times, the violence is balanced by, or mixed with, humor. In an attempt to make nice with the foliage, Eliot begins talking to a houseplant; with some trepidation, he approaches the tree and touches it. “It’s plastic,” he realizes, “I’m talking to a plastic tree.” After a pause he says, “I’m still doing it.”
A bit later in the film, Eliot, Alma, and Jess come upon an isolated farmhouse inhabited by an elderly recluse whose manners alternate rapidly between formal hospitality and hysterical anger. In these scenes, Shyamalan successfully exploits the affinity between horror and absurd comedy.
As is typical for Shyamalan’s films, the main characters here are beset with ordinary flaws, doubts, and frustrations but remain sympathetic throughout. Even as they flee the spread of the toxin and try to discover its cause, Eliot and Alma are still trying to figure out if they are right for each other. As was true in Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense, here too the trials undergone by the main characters — for example, Eliot and Alma’s shared commitment to protect Jess — force them to come to terms with fears and anxieties previously unexpressed. But these characters are not nearly as fascinating or as sympathetic as those in Shyamalan’s earlier efforts.
In contemporary film, natural images often serve as metaphors for the disorder in the human world — as, in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. But with The Happening, Shyamalan asks us to look at the strange activities of nature in a more literal way. The plot stands uneasily between the sort in which nature functions symbolically or metaphorically, and full-blown fantasies like The Lord of the Rings, in which conscious life and intention are bestowed upon trees.
If Shyamalan’s attempt to occupy an uneasy middle ground, a sort of mystical realism, is unsuccessful, the problem is not with the craft of filmmaking. It is rather with his source material, the execution of the writing of plot, dialogue, and character. Perhaps it is time for Shyamalan to let someone else do the writing, providing him with ideas he can shape in a distinctive way; only then will the release of a Shyamalan film stand a chance of becoming again what it once was, a happening.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.