M. Night Shyamalan isn’t preoccupied with ‘twist endings’, though he has been type-cast as such; he’s preoccupied with stories without explanation. This sense of magical realism can sometimes ruin the believability of the narrative or can sometimes be, ah, magical. The Happening manages to be a little bit ruined and little bit dark magic, like a magician who pulls a dead rabbit out of a hat.
In The Happening, there is no machete-wielding halfhuman around the corner waiting to chop up an unimportant character. Shyamalan finds the narrative in what is not known. I suppose that’s where the tension in most thrillers comes from – when the lurching slasher MIGHT be around the corner, when the music quiets and the hero slows, and you THINK something horrific is going to happen, but you don’t know. You never know in this movie, because no one knows what IT is. It, the event, the happening, the occurrening, is a sort of dementia spreading in a viral fashion, causing people to casually kill themselves. It may or may not be caused by rebellious house plants and their airborne neurotoxins.
The characters flee from nothing, from wind and rustling brush, and from oak trees burdened with the shackles of rope swings, bubbling with years of resentment. Really. There are implications of angry trees in the movie. It all sounds very silly and ridiculous, yes? It is. And yet, the constant suicides are immensely unnerving, and by association, so is the invisible menace from which the characters are fleeing. What is more disturbing than watching someone calmly kill themselves? Watching a few dozen, and then a few more, and not knowing if the protagonists are about to off themselves.
On that level the film works, for me. I didn’t buy Mark Wahlberg’s role as a high school science teacher – you get the sense that he’s only half a chapter ahead of his students in the textbook. I never knew much about Zooey Deschanel’s character – but I like Zooey Deschanel – and never bought the forced tension between their characters.
The Happening is what it needs to be and not quite what it could have been. Shyamalan likes the idea of being an auteur, I think, but he needs a writing partner, someone with older, wiser eyes, to look over his shoulder. So just give me a call, M. I only charge twice minimum wage.