Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review: The Happening (****)

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, and John Leguizamo
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Rated R for violent and disturbing images
92 minutes

At the risk of going against the popular consensus (something I did on M. Night Shyamalan’s critically eviscerated Lady in the Water, a film I consider one of the best of 2006), I’ll just go right out and say it: The Happening is an unnerving and uneasy masterpiece, a film to make you hold your breath. So terrifying and gut-clenching are the first 60 minutes that, when it appeared to be going off the rails in the last 30, I was crushed. Instead, some might say, it took a more conventional direction, but I think it took the most logical one.

There is something strange going on in New York. People are stopping whatever they’re doing, standing still, not able to speak, and then suddenly killing themselves. “There seems to be an event happening,” the principal of a school says nervously. The word “event” doesn’t begin to cover it, but then what word does? At first the government labels it as a terrorist attack by way of an airborne, weaponized neurotoxin. Then it begins to happen in four or five different places at once, sometimes in different states, always in the Northeast.

Trying to categorize The Happening as an infectious virus movie is like saying that Lady in the Water is a bedtime story, or that Signs is an alien invasion movie, or that The Sixth Sense is a zombie flick. With Shyamalan, things are never so black and white; there are always deeper forces at work.

Here the deeper force, which I would not dare give away, is something that Shyamalan has never really used before (Signs was faith, Lady in the Water was calling, etc.), and it’s to great success. As always, he never forces the lesson on us; instead he allows us to learn it ourselves.
The acting is uniformly understated. Mark Wahlberg and John Leguizamo are excellent as two best friends forced to make a decision which could end their lives, while Zooey Deschanel is fine, but perhaps a tad stale, as Eliot’s wife, Alma.

Aside from being emotionally concise—we are always concerned for Eliot, his wife, and the little girl under their care, and the film never panders to us by providing sentiment or soap—the film is also terrifically unnerving. The reason for this is not because there are millions of people committing suicide, but because the culprit is (dare I say it?) eerily plausible. It must be noted that the highly publicized R-rating is deserved: anyone who prefers light, frothy entertainment will be disappointed. This is a very dark and disturbing film; uninhibited suicide isn’t pretty.

This is one of the best, most underrated, most misunderstood films of 2008.

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