When The Sixth Sense came out in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan’s style was like a breath of fresh air. In an age of ADD pandering filmmakers like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, Shyamalan was a young director who had great success with a more patient style of filmmaking. He followed this up with Unbreakable and Signs, which were both very strong continuations of this new cinematic voice. Everything looked great for Shyamalan, but then everything suddenly went to hell. Shyamalan’s next film, The Village, was well crafted but it was also an exercise in futility complete with a lame twist and a predictable ending. Still, The Village had its moments and may have simply been a small stumble in Shyamalan’s career had he not followed it up with the abominable Lady in the Water, an incoherently bizarre film which seemed to be the work of an absolute madman.
All this time I continued to be a Shyamalan apologist simply on the basis that he had only made two bad films and three good films, which seemed to still be a decent average. For that reason I decided I was still going to give his next film a chance, especially since it had an intriguing trailer and a good concept. Unfortunately, The Happening, is not the comeback I was hoping for, in fact it might just be further confirmation of what I had feared, that M. Night Shyamalan has completely lost it.
The film doesn’t take long to get into its premise; it opens in central park on a clear morning. All of a sudden all the people in the park stand still, suddenly a woman pulls out a hairpin and stabs herself in the neck. Elsewhere in New York an entire construction crew jumps off the top of a building to their deaths. Shortly thereafter in Philadelphia a high school biology teacher named Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) is interrupted in the middle of his speech about the disappearance of bees and is informed that this wave of suicides is spreading throughout the entire Northeast, and is thought to be the doing of a terrorist attack. School is dismissed early and Elliot’s colleague Julian (John Leguizamo) invites his to flee with his daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) on a train to Harrisburg. Elliot brings his estranged wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) along as the four try desperately to outrun this strange outbreak that is causing mass death.
I’ll start with the positive here, as bad as this is, it isn’t nearly as non-sensical or boring as Lady in the Water. Unfortunately this is probably still worse than The Village and isn’t anywhere close to being as good as his first three films. Shyamalan does at least seem to have the germ of a very good idea here. The mass suicide scenes are very well made and effectively creepy especially in the first ten minutes or so. These scenes incorporate a level of violence that has previously been unseen in Shyamalan’s work (the film’s R-Rating has become a major point in its advertising campaign) and this occasional gore is an interesting addition to Shyamalan’s somber style. The catch is, that everything around these few set pieces is absolutely god-awful.
Interestingly, this is a film that manages to fail in a way that is the exact opposite of how The Village and Lady in the Water failed. Those two movies were both very well crafted and acted, but were let down by misguided and/or insane stories. Here the story really could have worked, but the acting and dialogue is shockingly bad. I’m not entirely sure why the acting here is so bad; Wahlberg, Deschanel, and Leguizamo are all talented performers and Shyamalan has traditionally been something of an actors director, getting great work out of Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and Paul Giamatti even when his films don’t generally work.
Here every performer seems to have no idea how to dial their work back at all, there’s massive overacting all around. Wahlberg speaks through the whole movie like in an oddly confused tone and often comes off really whiney, Deschanel is just as unnaturalistic and neither is able to create really effective characters. John Leguizamo just seems completely miscast and none of his natural wit is able to really come through. I don’t think I can really blame any of these actors for this mess, as all of them are uncharacteristically weak, as are the supporting characters. I can only assume that it was Shyamalan’s neglect that lead to such wild overacting in this thing.
I’m sure the actors weren’t helped at all by this messy script’s terrible dialogue. This script feels like a first draft to me, the dialogue is incredibly unpolished here. The actors are frequently forced to try and make ridiculous lines like “If you take my daughter’s hand you better mean it” work. The exposition here is also quite bad, with the marriage problems of the two leads handled in the most awkward way imaginable. Compare the handling of this couple’s back-story with the careful prose used to explain Bruce Willis’ past in The Sixth Sense or the family’s situation in Signs and you’ll get an idea of just how far M. Night Shyamalan has fallen.
The film is in many ways an inferior retread of Signs, as both are movies dealing with troubled families (in this case a surrogate family) dealing with a mass crisis situation. This in itself is a disappointment, as crazy as the Shyamalan’s last two films were, they at least were trying different things and didn’t feel like recycled stories. The film mostly avoids the general insanity that characterized Lady in the Water, but he gets damn close to that level of confounding silliness in the third act where the group find themselves in some really strange encounters with hillbillies. Particularly strange is the sudden and jarring appearance of an old hillbilly woman named Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley). The behavior of this character defies any type of conventional action by a member of the human species and Buckley is forced to give one of the most over the top performances in recent memory. Even stranger is how long the group puts up with this clearly disturbed person.
Throughout the film characters continually find themselves acting in strange and illogical ways. For instance, mid way through the movie a crowd realizes that the outbreak mainly attacks areas with large numbers of people, and that it’s beginning to target increasingly small groups of people. So the first thing these geniuses do is decide to “Stay together” which would be great advice in most slasher movies but which is completely illogical given that A. there isn’t a single thing that teamwork can do to save anyone from a poisonous gas and B. that’s clearly just going to make them more of a target. Later Wahlberg finds himself behaving in a very Lady in the Water kind of a way by deciding to base his decisions using the scientific method, which means he sits and says he’s sorting out the variables before coming to the obvious conclusion that he needs to run as fast as he can.
Spoiler Warning, skip ahead a paragraph if you don’t want to hear about a twist that emerges early in the film’s second act. About half way through, Shymalan reveals that this wave of violence is the result of plants deliberately giving off chemical pheromones to defend themselves from the polluting humans. You read that right, this is a heavy handed message about environmentalism. Firstly, that’s stupid. Secondly, the message is handled in a remarkable inelegant way. The film begins with Wahlberg conveniently setting up the theme is a direct way via a lecture to his high school class. Throughout the film Wahlberg slowly decides that this is the reason for the attack without doing a single test. The logic is never clear, why is it only attacking groups when it seems these plants could just as easily just let the poison loose everywhere at once. Also why are certain people, like the woman at the beginning, seemingly immune for the purposes of looking scared as everyone around them is dying? The environmentalist message is just silly. At least The Village kept its heavy-handed message as an (obvious) allegory; this film just bludgeons the audience with Shyamalan’s message of “respecting nature.”
I’ve tried to support Shyamalan for so long, I had hoped he had learned his lesson from the horrible reaction to Lady in the Water, but this is another disaster. He at least rid this film of some of the problems he usually has, there’s no director’s cameo and there isn’t really a twist ending, but the bigger problems of hubris is still in full swing. Shyamalan just needs to quit making these high concept twilight Zone episodes and try something new because this well is getting really dry.
* out of four