With M. Night Shyamalan back to being a major part of the pop culture conversation thanks to the success of Split (my feelings towards which aren't far off from Rob and Adam's), I've been thinking a lot about the director's work and what it means to me. As someone who would call himself a fan of Shyamalan's first few movies -- yes, even Signs and parts of The Village -- I'd argue that his career can be broken up into three movements: the skillful confidence of his early efforts, the flop sweat years of box office failure and constantly reacting to the previous bad movie by trying out a new kind of bad movie, and now the low-budget Blumhouse period, which has been met with a great deal of success both financially and with audience popularity. People really like M. Night Shyamalan again. It's been almost 15 years since we could say that.
Shyamalan made a number of bad movies during the flop sweat years, but none of them were really bad in the same way. After Earth is generic and impersonal big-budget filmmaking, while his adaptation of The Last Airbender is disastrously stiff, borderline incompetent big-budget filmmaking that suggests he'd never made a movie before. Of all his bad movies, I'm probably most partial to Lady in the Water and not because there's any single thing about it I actually like. He's really trying to do something different in that film, challenging both himself and his audience. I think he fails in every way, but I'd rather watch Shyamalan swing big and miss than what he does in, say, The Happening, a safe -- if still spectacularly terrible -- movie that's only distinction is that it's his first (and only) "rated R" effort. Outside of a little bit of extra self-inflicted violence, the film just finds Shyamalan doing his usual thing...and doing it very, very poorly.
I still remember going to see the movie the weekend it opened in 2008 with Erika, JB and Jan. We were in a sparsely attended theater and more than willing to give The Happening a chance -- we were not there to make fun of it -- but pretty quickly it became clear what kind of movie it was and we found ourselves laughing at every terrible new line. No one else in the theater was laughing. I started to feel bad that we might be ruining the experience of everyone else, who appeared to be enjoying it on an unironic level. Truth be told, I hate inappropriate laughter at the movies, as it usually comes from an audience who have decided they are above what is on screen. It is not a practice in which I willfully partake. That said, The Happening wore me down. I didn't know how else to respond but to laugh, and the fact that we were among friends and all having the same reaction only made matters worse. I wasn't there to mess up anyone's good time, but how else am I supposed to respond when Shyamalan follows up a scene of graphic suicide with a character talking about how hot dogs are the perfect food?
There's a decent idea for a modern-day eco-horror movie at the center of The Happening: the trees and plants, tired of being trampled on by our stupid Uggs, fight back by releasing a toxin designed to wipe us out. Nature fights back! I'm on board. Unfortunately, Shyamalan either doesn't seem to know or care how the mechanics of horror movies work, so he establishes a premise but doesn't tell a story. There is no escalation to the situation he introduces. Things don't really get worse for our heroes. Something happens, and then it happens again and then it happens again. This is why the movie is called The Happening. It also doesn't understand how to dole out new information. There is a window of time in the first third of the movie in which we don't understand what is causing people to kill themselves. Then someone suggests it's the plants. Then the characters speculate that, yes, maybe it is the plants for a while. Then the big reveal is that it is HOLY FUCKING SHIT the plants. What a twist!
A word about the whole "plants make us want to kill ourselves" premise. I'm not sure it works. It's just too passive. For it to be really scary, the people exposed to the toxin should immediately begin killing each other. I know this would be effective because I have seen The Crazies. The original and the remake! One setpiece, in which Shyamalan tracks the progress of a handgun as it is passed off from person to person shooting him/herself in the street, is the kind of thing I know he fell in love with from the writing stage through the final edit. It's photographed well because Shyamalan still knows how to put a sequence together, but the construction of it is self-conscious and the game of suicidal telephone becomes silly when it's meant to be, like, totally fucked up, you know dude? There is exactly one scene in the first few minutes of the movie in which the whole mass suicide thing is genuinely horrifying, and it's when the construction workers are all jumping off the top of a building en masse. Yes, it's ludicrous. Yes, it would be an unintentionally hilarious visual if it weren't for the reactions of the guys on the ground, who first think their friend has fallen and then can't understand what the fuck is happening when a few more people hit the ground. It's an honest moment, and the only time in the film in which a character's lack of understanding as to what is happening actually gives way to horror. Don't worry; because it's The Happening, it's ruined seconds later when the same actor gets a teary close up and cries "God in heaven..." and it all becomes funny because it is the worst. So much for bringing us to the brink of being scared.
Not helping matters is the fact that Shyamalan has asked cinematographer Tak Fujimoto to shoot much of the movie in closeups on actors' faces, a trick he borrows from Jonathan Demme (for whom Fujimoto has shot a number of movies). This results in a series of shots in which Mark Wahlberg looks confused even before people begin unexplainably killing themselves. He comes off really, really bad, but he's not alone. John Leguizamo is more convincing as a fat demon clown than he is here, forced to spout nonsense like "Don't take my daughter's hand unless you mean it!" and reference the fact that he's a math teacher as often as possible, because Shyamalan can only conceive of writing these characters in relation to what they do for a job. I know he thinks he's being all deep and shit by having these two men who guide their lives by the principles of logic and reason (math and science!) being confronted by something which defies everything they know to be true, but none of that comes off. Instead it feels like the first script written by a high schooler who doesn't know how to give characters personality traits, only expository details. Betty Buckley, a talented actress, is a disaster as a kooky old lady named You Eyein' My Lemon Drink. She poses one of the only external conflicts in the movie -- you know, the thing The Happening needs more of in order to be at all interesting or suspenseful -- and then succumbs to the same dumb suicide as everyone else. Thank you, threat, for neutralizing yourself without the heroes having to do a single goddamn thing. THE HORROR!
|I know exactly how you feel, boys|
Now if you need me I'll be at the zoo feeding myself to the lions. Save me some lemon drink.