And then he made The Happening. Lady in the Water was a collage of self-important grand movie statements about the state of the world doctored up by a man who had not one clue what the world was, let alone how to convey that on the screen. What could be a better counter to the big-boy statements of a preachy message film than an elementally chilly exercise in pure nihilism and horror? With the idea for The Happening, Shyamalan seemed to be at least listening and returning back to the muck and earthen horror of what he does best (indeed, atmospheric horror is the only thing he ever did well). Ideally, The Happening could have been an exercise in humorless style and pure cinematic horror, entirely visual and lacking in any of the pretentious import of Shyamalan at his worst.
Certainly, The Happening could have had no foreseeable investment in explaining itself to us (Shyamalan is always at his worst when he is trying to explain himself). It could have dragged us into the mud with no hope of learning or growing or bettering ourselves. It could have been a palate cleanser, a work as far removed from the constant and unforgiving parade of non-dialogue in a film that used humans only as mouthpieces for ideas. It could have been the golden child, a down and dirty slice of grim self-destruction with no interest in speaking to us at all. Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is often erroneously compared to Hitchcock. The Happening could have been Shyamalan’s The Birds.
Except, of course, it had to be an M. Night Shyamalan film, and it had to spend the entirety of its wheezing existence searching for a reason, hoping for an explanation for the horror. What begins as a wonderfully implacable exercise in pure style after an outbreak of mass suicide in New England soon enough turns into a hopeless, hokey exercise in explaining that which would be better left unexplainable. A search which doubles as an excuse for Shyamalan to pummel us with his half-hearted dialogue which remains as worthless as it ever was (and this is, remember, dialogue from a person who cast himself as a writer whose writing would save the world in his previous film).
The Happening isn’t as dead-in-the-water at the level of raw idea as Lady in the Water was, but it quickly – very quickly – devolves into a colossally out-of-place commentary on humanity’s treatment of the Earth and use of pesticides and genetic engineering in plants – fair from a moral point of you – that is stunningly at odds with the frosty nihilism of the horror. The inability of this film to at least commit to its badness makes it even more disappointing, as well; Lady in the Water fails from the very womb, but The Happening keeps taunting and teasing us with something better.
At least The Happening is a slight improvement as a work of visual storytelling this time out, but even then only in that it is less “parade of incompetent shots” and more “slingshot roller coaster ride that hurtles from sheer ineptitude to genuine craft” from moment to moment. Specifically, it moves from “cinematographer Tak Fujimoto is unable to hold himself up against the tidal wave of terrible he is submitted to” and “cinematographer Tak Fujimoto is on hand doing a rather stunning job of finding terrible, tarnished beauty in Shyamalan’s films. Fujimoto is not generally considered a household name (as though any cinematographer could actually qualify as a household name, but that is the shame of public acceptance). But between his unmitigated successes (his first film was the arguable-most-beautiful-film-of-the-past-fifty-years, Terrence Malick’s Badlands) and his ability to create goodness out of material that doesn’t deserve it, he ought to be better recognized.
It is of note that the playful filmmaking Shyamalan is generally given credit for only finds its way into the very films that Fujimoto photographed (The Sixth Sense, Signs). So much so that one might think Shyamalan has no real stylistic talent at all. One might think he simply stumbled onto a great cinematographer to do his dirty work for him once or twice, and was credited with the panache. Now, The Happening is no Badlands. It isn’t even The Sixth Sense, but there are moments of genuine beauty. A scene involving a series of construction workers falling from a building is lit with a harsh white from the fires of hell, abstracting the events and capturing how deliberately unreal and dreamlike the situation is. Of course, it smash cuts to Mark Wahlberg in a sweater vest pretending he is a real teacher, so we can’t have everything.
When the Wahlberg character and his wife and his best friend’s daughter try to leave Philadelphia to escape the horrors of man’s doing, there are indeed a few other opportunities for Shyamalan to steal Fujimoto’s credit behind the camera. But, if you take the off-hand look of the film out of the question, there are but slim pickings all around. The acting is uniformly undersold, but then, how to sell this material? Again, the divining rod flaw of the film sucking up all the other badness is the script, but it is a tad mesmerizing how bad The Happening is in so many ways. Take the dumb-foundingly inept editing in the opening scene for example, although it is hard to take it at all for it has no idea what it is doing. And yet again Shyamalan appears to have siphoned his framing choices from a ouija board. He doesn’t direct like he has no idea how to shoot a scene; he directs like he has an idea, and that idea happens to be garbage. The grass swaying in the wind motif is a work of anti-brilliance, almost but not quite matching the relentless frog inter-cuts in that most foul of environmentalist B-movie classics, the 1972 release of Frogs.
The Happening, if bad, at least maintains the Shyamalan touch. Which is to say, it is not merely accidentally bad. It is not merely indifferent. It is bad in a baroque way. It believes in every single second of its dialogue, ever shot selection, every line reading. It believes in its ideas and approaches them with a delirious tranquil pool of seriousness. It believes that it knows how to convey those ideas in an identifiable, palatable way on the screen. It believes that it genuinely reveals something about the anxieties of humankind, about how human people act in crisis, and it has the typically-Shyamalan monomania to believe that every single decision it is making is not only good and sober but necessary for the world. It is an astoundingly self-centered production. It isn’t merely bad, but cluelessly bad, and it earns the name of its creator for this very reason.
So how good is it really?: 1/5 (scorchingly bad, and watching Mark Wahlberg cutesy-put can’t but hurt)
But how “good” is it?: 3/5 (the wind rustling the leaves shots are real winners, and watching Mark Wahlberg cutesy-pout is never less than endearing)