Owain Paciuszko 24/06/2008
Not many directors come under as much critical scrutiny as befalls M Night Shyamalan, ever since the surprise success of 'The Sixth Sense' and its infamous twist each new release has been preceded by a huge level of expectation and cynicism. There are those who believe him to be a one trick pony and others who assure us he is the new Hitchcock. I don't fall into either camp, he's a competent writer-director who is producing original films based on original ideas, which is something to be commended on one level. His finest film, in my opinion, was 'Unbreakable' which looked at the superhero genre from a very human and strange perspective, taking its time to really develop the characters and giving Bruce Willis one of his best roles since 'Twelve Monkeys'. Also, upon reappraisal, there isn't anything in it that could really be constituted a 'twist' in the vein of gimmickry that seems to have arisen around Shyamalan's script structure. In fact, for the most part, 'The Sixth Sense' and 'The Village' are the only two of his films that have relied upon this notion.
A lot of the initial furore around 'The Happening' was that it was, most definitely, not going to have a twist, and, it doesn't. What is even more surprising though is that is such a poorly executed film in absolutely every single aspect of its production, from casting to directing to music and editing, it is shockingly abysmal in every area bar one, the concept. For all its ludicrousness the idea of some sort of natural unknown phenomenom that causes people to kill themselves is a pretty tasty idea; setting the scene for absolute blind terror and some really shocking and disturbing set-pieces. From the off Shyamalan fumbles this with a cast made up of actors directed into performances so heightened or under-stated at exactly the wrong moments, stripping each suicide of any drama, tension, horror or interest. Whilst Shyamalan bragged about this being his first 'R Rated' movie it extremely restrained and gory snippets glimpsed in a 'red band' internet trailer are all non-existent in the finished film. So, firstly anyone seeking some claret soaked shocks will be leaving the similar unsated.
The film is heft upon the shoulders of Mark Wahlberg who must be one of the most erratic and unpredictable actors working today, see-sawing wildly from stand-out performances (brilliant in 'I Heart Huckabees' and 'The Departed') to bafflingly bad (Tim Burton's 'Planet of the Apes') and here, he is unfortunately, lolloping uncomfortably in the latter camp. Zooey Deschanel, as his wife, fares no better, opening her eyes as wide as they can go and little else; once you realise what the main 'drama' between our two main characters is you will be even more baffled as to what was going through M Night's mind.* The supporting cast is just as oddly assembled as our leads, with a plethora of increasingly odd characters cropping up throughout our journey. At times you are trying to convince yourself that this is not actually a thriller but some sort of weird comedy, but then supposedly 'dramatic' or 'nail-biting' scenes occur and you are sure that everyone's actually taking this seriously. One scene involving Wahlberg and a houseplant seemed to finally allow the audience I saw the film with to accept the movie as outrageously awful and just start laughing at it.
Shyamalan claims that he was in the midst of writing another script when he had the idea for this, originally titled 'The Green Effect', so just put the other script on hold to bash this out; but to me this feels like a knee-jerk reaction to the commercial and critical drubbing visited upon his last film 'Lady in the Water'. This also doesn't feel like the same director of any of his previous films, gone is the slow build, the care and attention placed on character, any of the hallmarks of what drew tension out of even the most simple of scenes in any of his previous films - even 'The Village' which I hated managed to effectively jangle my nerves for a large portion of its running time. This film just clips by leaving you sat back in your seat, completely speechless at what you are seeing. Shyamalan enthusiastically spoke of the aftermath of test screenings where the audience stood outside in silence, allegedly so disturbed by the horrors they had just witnessed. Well, I can atest, that a similar sensation occured after this screening, but it was a stunned silence where nobody quite knew how to articulate how absolutely awful this film is. Though that may prove to be its greatest weapon as this will surely become cult-viewing for the so-bad-it's-good crowd.
*Spoiler: It's about her eating tiramisu with someone else.