Shyamalan's 'Happening' Lacks a Sense of Direction

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

He still sees dead people, only now they're the best thing in the movie.

M. Night Shyamalan gets great spurts of energy when he visualizes the dead, in this case victims of a plague of suicide sweeping the Northeast in his new film, "The Happening."

A perfectly pleasant if somewhat distracted young woman plunges a knitting needle into her neck.

Someone carefully places himself in front of a large power mower. (Ugh!)

Scores of construction workers leap eerily to their deaths (a shocking image made more powerful by Shyamalan's insistence on stuntmen rather than dummies so the bodies show spontaneity and plasticity on the way down).

And finally: An old lady smashes her head through a window to cut her own throat.

If you like suicide, here's your main ride. All others steer clear. As Shyamalan imagines it (as usual, he wrote, directed and produced and appears in a cameo just like what's his name), a strange airborne toxin is loosed upon the region, beginning in New York's Central Park at exactly 8:33 in the morning. The superb cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (who also shot Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs") manages to capture the exact weight of the wind as it presses against the leaves of that leafy glen, and soon, people have stopped moving for a few seconds and then hastened to find methods of self-obliteration. Shyamalan is bright enough to know how far a little goes in these matters, and thus he gives us only a few of the millions of deaths taking place, but each one is aestheticized for total impact. And the movie hasn't even begun !

When it does, it catches an Amtrak train 90 miles to the southwest and settles in and around the director's home town, Philadelphia. There it zeros in on Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg, this edition's working-stiff Philly hero) and his wide-eyed wife, Alma (Zooey Deschanel). Elliot teaches high school science, where he sets the movie's theme by quoting Albert Einstein on how the fate of honeybees (now disappeared) will affect the fate of man (soon to disappear). Then the wind of death blows through Philadelphia, too, and Elliott and Alma, plus a friendly couple's child, Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), take to the road, in a tide of refugees.

So is this a refugee movie? Is it a plague movie? Is it a civic-breakdown movie? Is it "The Birds"? Is it "The War of the Worlds"? Is it "Dawn of the Dead"? Or is it a crazy-old-lady movie?

Well, of all these possibilities, it most resembles the crazy-old-lady movie in its last third, when the fleeing Moores and their ersatz child arrive at the otherwise deserted farmhouse of Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley), who puts them up for the night while acting more and more unhinged. There are hints strewn throughout of long-ago trauma (photos of a long-vanished husband; a weird, life-size child doll carefully placed in a bed), and at one point, I thought Buckley was going to pull off her wig and reveal herself to be Anthony Perkins! Where is John Gavin when you need him?

But that odd sequence really represents a larger problem, which is that Shyamalan, unlike the directors of the far better "Birds," "War" and even "Dawn," isn't entirely sure what kind of movie he's making and he shuffles through personalities looking for one that interests him.

For example, he wastes a lot of time setting up a scenario that seems to be a platform for studying group dynamics under extreme supernatural pressure (similar to last year's "The Mist"). In this 20-minute passage, the Moores end up in a group negotiating the landscape on foot under the command of a very junior military policeman to whom, for some unknowable reason, all the men defer though he's clearly close to hysteria. But then Shyamalan loses engagement in it, and simply makes it go away in about 10 seconds. That leaves the Moores with two teenage boys (Spencer Breslin and Robert Bailey Jr.) on the trek until they bore the director, and they're gone, again in seconds.

The contrast with Hitchcock, Spielberg and Romero is telling. The first two, of course, are great directors, the third a great hack whose cockeyed world you have to accept if you want to get anything out of the experience (in which of those categories does Shyamalan belong?). But each outperforms Shyamalan because each really wants to make that particular movie, each makes that movie, and the movie shows the director's professionalism in coherence, vividness, superb design and a start-to-finish emotional experience. By sad contrast, "The Happening" stutter-steps its way this direction or that, and finally hides in the last refuge of the scoundrel, 2008-style, a generic and thoroughly unearned "ecological" identity. It's for the planet, M. Night proclaims madly at the end, hiding behind the green flag and expecting mercy. But I'm betting even the planet wants better movies.

The Happening (92 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R and contains disturbing images, gore and violence, some directed at children.

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