By Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
With The Happening, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan bounces back from the turgidness of The Village and the idiocy of Lady in the Water. The movie has a great, Shyamalan-esque hook: One otherwise normal morning in Central Park, everyone starts to commit suicide, and then the behavior starts to spread, as if it were airborne, throughout the Northeast.
At the relatively safe distance of Philadelphia, high school science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his increasingly distant wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) watch the news and try to make sense of what is transpiring. Is it a virus? Toxic gas? A terrorist attack? ”Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil that could be invented,” Alma says sadly.
Then people in Philly start killing themselves, and the couple goes on the run with Elliot’s best friend (John Leguizamo) and his young daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez). But where to? Like War of the Worlds and Cloverfield, The Happening pointedly invokes Sept. 11 in its evocation of Americans reacting to a large-scale, incomprehensible calamity that has no precedent.
As society quickly breaks down — trains stop running, TVs stop working, the power goes out and the radio transmits static — Shyamalan explores how an end-of-the-world scenario changes behavior, turning us into shotgun-toting killers or desperate, scared individuals struggling to make peace with the fact that the end is near. Halfway through the film, before things have become truly dire, Alma turns to her husband and confesses she had a slice of tiramisu with another man. That’s all she did — she had dessert with him — but the impending death of everyone and everything you know and love has a way of making the peas under the mattress suddenly feel intolerable.
Even when his scripts aren’t working, Shyamalan knows how to frame shots and build suspense. The Happening, even more than his previous films, has a visual elegance and subtlety that helps to overcome the less successful aspects of the plot. His camera often trains on banal subjects, like sunlight pouring through a tear in the vinyl top of a convertible, investing them with horrible meaning. He also photographs faces as effectively as Steven Spielberg, often using close-ups to convey volumes, like the expression on a little girl’s face as she is led to her apparent doom by the person in the world she trusts the most at that moment.
This is not Shyamalan’s first violent film, but it is his first R-rated movie, and most of the time the graphic nature of the violence is effectively used. An early sequence in which construction workers start casually walking off the roof of a building is pure nightmare, a rainstorm of human bodies, landing on the ground with a sickening crunch. There’s only one instance, in which a suicidal zoo keeper walks unarmed into a cage of lions, where the gore feels gratuitous.
The rest of the violence in The Happening is sudden and fleeting, adding to the growing sense of dread and panic the movie builds at a quiet pace. It’s that quietness that will test the patience of viewers who like their horror faster and furiouser. Like Signs, The Happening is a subtle, measured work, which means there will be many who find it dull and pointless.
The explanation about what is causing the mass suicides, too, is problematic: Sticklers for plausibility and logic in their films — even fantasies — will find much to mock here. Shyamalan doesn’t do himself any favors with a couple of unnecessary cutaway shots at critical moments intended to heighten suspense that raise chuckles instead.
But why The Happening is happening is ultimately a MacGuffin for what Shyamalan is doing here. The movie has moments of unexpected humor (such as Elliot’s encounter with an artificial indoor plant) and occasionally detours into bizarre, unnerving territory, including Elliot and Alma’s meeting with an old recluse (Betty Buckley) who turns out to be even weirder than she seems. For all its apocalyptic terrors, however, The Happening shares the same theme as all of Shyamalan’s previous films: The overriding importance of family and the way in which love can, if not overcome any evil, at least provide some umbrage from its terrors.
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, Betty Buckley, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez.
Writer-director: M. Night Shyamalan.
Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Sam Mercer, Barry Mendel.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 90 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes.