From promising ingenue to critical pariah, the rise and fall of public perception towards M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker has been a fascinating story over the past few years – a kind of Shakespearean tragedy as if it were recounted by Jacqueline Susann.
Why does he generate such vitriol? The man flaunts an arrogance that borders on self-deification, yet so has many an acclaimed filmmaker from fanboy concubine James Cameron to existential ice queen Stanley Kubrick. One also can’t deny that as a director he has a natural talent with his craft – composing and editing shots and set pieces in ways the oft-employed but dubiously talented Brett Ratner or Shawn Levy could only dream about.
Yet a few early warning indicators in the otherwise well-crafted “Unbreakable” and “Signs” showed that something was beginning to slip. The laughable period mystery “The Village” led to the simply atrocious fairy tale “Lady in the Water”, two films that still demonstrated often impressive directorial technique but were hampered by his increasingly transparent, self-absorbed and often defensive scripting. Fleshed out characters and fascinating setups had devolved into amateurish essays into the structure of storytelling, rote caricatures and banal dialogue even George Lucas could improve on.
“The Happening” in many ways is a make or break film for the man. It’s a return to the paranoia thriller genre that gave us “Signs”, his familiar set up of a broken nuclear family being brought back together by a Twilight Zone-esque experience, and yet another homage to one of his mentor Hitchcock’s most famous works – in this case “The Birds”. It doesn’t work. In fact, excluding a few moments of chilling effectiveness, this could fairly be called his worst film yet. Even his usual saving grace of keen directorial acumen for the first time visibly loses cohesion on screen, ultimately yielding a film that would’ve been considered one of the year’s most notable disappointments had there actually been any moderately-sized anticipation for it.
The problems lie all over the place, starting with career worst performances from Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Admittedly Wahlberg has never been considered one of the next great award-winning young talents to have emerged on the scene, nevertheless he’s amply demonstrated strong work in the past and proven a quite amenable protagonist even in some very dodgy material. This is the first time however where he delivers a performance of Heather Graham sexual thriller caliber, the kind where on NUMEROUS occasions he sighs a tepid ‘oh no’ in situations where everyone around him is graphically killing themselves.
It’s astonishingly flat work – whether it be his attempted ‘I’m a hip teacher’ schoolroom banter, to this film’s “fridge surviving an atomic bomb” moment of incredulity where he calmly tries to negotiate with a pot plant. His only strength is that he does fit with Zooey Deschanel’s oddly distant and perpetually stoned role as his estranged wife. The two have no chemistry and consistently fail to convey the gravity or urgency of their increasingly dire situation which undermines much of the suspense. An overly talky John Leguizamo is the only one who seems able to at least display a sense of personal jeopardy in his few fleeting moments.
None of the cast, which doesn’t include the helmer himself this time, are helped by atrocious dialogue and a storyline which never really goes anywhere or with any specific direction in mind. It’s a shame considering the strong start to the film with people in New York’s Central Park suddenly freezing in place and one girl calmly stabbing herself in the neck. A few minutes later workers hurl themselves off a construction in the film’s single most chilling shot. A good 10-15 minutes of the film’s short runtime is devoted to these grim suicides which take place throughout the film.
Some hit with brutal effectiveness, even a jaded filmgoer like myself was shocked by one sequence involving the brutal slaying of two kids. Other deaths however (one at a zoo, another involving a gardening tool) are so overplayed as to be almost laughable. With a few obvious 9/11 parallels, the Western world still overly paranoid about the threat of terrorism and not concerned enough with environmental issues, and a lot of people still unsettled by the topics of suicide or euthanasia – one can see these scenes still proving effective with portions of the audience.
An early attempt to scientifically explain why people are doing what they do sadly only serves to point out the ridiculousness of the situation – going from neuro-chemical suppression of self-preservation instincts to proactively committing suicide in various elaborate ways is a very large leap of logic. Yet the potential cause revealed very early on in the film, that of Mother Nature being the world’s most effective biological terrorist, could’ve worked brilliantly had they tried for something more reasonable (a simple airborne fatal poison) or something far more elaborate such as a “Day of the Triffids” scenario.
Instead we get a few action set pieces with our characters ridiculously trying to out run gusts of wind, wind with an astonishingly slow pace, flat front, and inability to blow through the many cracks and holes of houses in a state of disrepair. At 91 minutes the film is mercifully brief, tech credits from James Newton Howard’s score to the production design and location shoots are solid.
It’s an unengaging and ultimately uninteresting ecological thriller that oddly enough might’ve worked better had Shyamalan relied on his usually more ambitious twists and elaborate back story mythology instead of this restrained low-key approach. His clumsy bluntness may have been ingratiating and even infuriating, but it was at least passionate and gave his earlier work much more energy, genuine visceral tension, and showed a ballsy ability to manipulate the audience. The only thing ‘happening’ here is a film imploding with a whimper instead of a bang.