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USA/India 2008
Directed by
M. Night Shyamalan
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
4 stars

The Happening

Synopsis: A couple struggling to even communicate (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel), and the young daughter of their friend (John Leguizamo), are plunged into a horrifying struggle for survival when something starts happening in north-east America, causing people to kill themselves.

Since the phenomenal success of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense in 1999, the writer/director’s films have grown ever more fantastic and incredible (literally). From the boy who sees dead people we progressed to an unbreakable man, signs of hydrophobic aliens, strange monsters in the village woods, a spirit lady in an apartment block’s swimming pool, and now the strange toxic ‘happening’ that is driving people to suicide.

At the same time, the director’s style is increasingly measured in its naturalism, with peculiarly restrained performances in the face of extraordinary events. Shyamalan is nothing if not courageous in his willingness to forsake earlier commercial mega-success in the development of an unusually naïve style. In taboid film criticism, where every film must surely be an amalgam of others, The Happening would be called some kind of horrifying Hartley/Hitchcock hybrid. If they knew who Hartley was.

To love such a psychological fancy requires a certain suspension of logic and disbelief and a susceptibility to find great horror in small moments. Shyamalan’s earlier films are dramatic thrillers, but The Happening goes further to really horrify. It is strongly reminiscent of The Birds, yet even more effective in taking innocent aspects of nature and making them terrifying and almost inescapable. It’s a horror that doesn’t act externally but infects a person and turns them against themselves in ever more violent ways. The visual violence is a striking new feature in comparison to the director’s earlier work, mostly mercifully brief, but pitilessly heightened by a wonderfully panic-inducing score.

With all but one of his films profitable, some massively so, Shyamalan is obviously popular. Yet his work is often stridently criticised by reviewers as some kind of arrogant whimsy. Still, there were once a lot of people who said Bob Dylan should never have gone electric. Unfortunately for the fans of The Sixth Sense, there will be no numerical sequel or prequel. The director is moving on, avoiding neatly tying up loose ends in favour of exploring open-ended interconnections in peculiarly adult fantasies. Particularly, the spiritual and emotional connections that bind together the narrative of the family, the bonds between parents and children, the divisiveness of fear, and the transformative effect of love. There is a touch of both the sentimental and experimental but beneath it remains a fair degree of subtlety, even a political message that’s worth opening your heart to.




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