"This is my happening, and it freaks me out!"
– Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)
That M Night Shyamalan's career has been following a steady downward trajectory since his extraordinary success with The Sixth Sense is pretty much beyond dispute, but I'd argue the director has now managed to arrest that inexorable decline. Not because his new film The Happening is any good, you understand, but simply because it's not any more terrible than his previous two pictures, The Village and Lady in the Water. He seems to have plateaued at a particular level of awfulness, and if there's no sign of his work actually improving in the near future, at least we can take comfort in the notion that it surely can't get any worse.
After basing his previous plots around dead people, aliens, cloistered societies and...um...whatever the hell those Lady in the Water creatures were, his new film features a far more intangible plot device. One crisp morning in Central Park, everything suddenly seems to freeze; joggers come to a standstill, children stop playing, and conversations abruptly cease. After a few seconds of this, everyone starts to kill themselves with whatever comes to hand. Across town, a man falls to his death from the top of a building, and as bystanders look on in horror, dozens of others follow suit, dropping like lemmings and hitting the pavement with a horrible crack.
As these scenes unfolded, I started to feel a curious sensation, one I hadn't experienced in quite some time – I was enjoying an M Night Shyamalan movie! The opening ten minutes of The Happening are surprisingly effective, and there's something genuinely disquieting about the sight of so many ordinary people calmly and inexplicably taking their own lives. As is so often the case with Shyamalan, the basic premise of his film has plenty of potential, but he has no idea where to take it, and the route he eventually chooses had me shaking my head in dismay. After those initial sequences had elapsed, the film quickly starts to collapse in on itself. Mark Wahlberg is uncomfortably cast as Philadelphian science teacher Elliott, and he's trying to engage his class in a discussion about the mysterious disappearance of bees ("Don't you have an opinion on the bees?" he earnestly asks one bored student, recalling some of Michael Caine's classic dialogue in The Swarm). He is interrupted by the news from New York, and by this stage most people suspect it to be the work of terrorists who have released some kind of nerve toxin, although one member of staff is a bit more vague, telling us "There appears to be an event...happening". Elliott's colleague (John Leguizamo) decides to get out of town with his daughter, and he invites both Elliot and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) to join him as they try to escape from whatever's, you know, happening.
One of the observations often made about Shyamalan is that he should move away from his own material and start taking on stories written by others, the implication being that he's a talented director who happens to be a lousy writer, but I can't see any evidence to support this theory. People often defend his work on the basis that his films are so handsomely staged, but if you hire Roger Deakins or Tak Fujimoto then that's half the battle as far as I'm concerned, and as a director Shyamalan has an infuriatingly limited array of tools at his disposal. He'll maintain a slow tracking shot and then make you jump with a quick edit, or he'll throw something into a hitherto unoccupied part of the frame – there's no talent in that, it's just a cheap hack trick. His pacing is incredibly poor, and he has no idea how to build or sustain a sense of tension, but the most significant criticism one can make against his directorial abilities is this: M Night Shyamalan is simply clueless with his actors.
In 1999 Shyamalan received a lot of praise for the understated, measured displays he elicited from his cast, particularly from Bruce Willis, but in every film since then he has forced his cast to play their roles in the same register; people are always whispering or murmuring in Shyamalan's films. Presumably the director believes his ridiculous dialogue will gain added credibility if everyone utters it in hushed, reverent tones, but he just forces any sense of life out of the actors. This is a particularly catastrophic turn of events for Zooey Deschanel, one of the loveliest and most effortlessly charismatic young actresses working today, who has somehow been guided towards one of the worst screen performances in recent years here. It's as if she has been lobotomised in preparation for the role; she wanders around with her eyes wide and her mouth open, often twitching and stumbling over her words. Wahlberg is equally ill-used by Shyamalan; he wears a permanent look of befuddlement which I suspect belongs to the actor as much as the character. I'm not sure which single moment stands out for me among his personal highlights reel, but the scene where he tries to formulate a scientific theory under pressure is a hoot, as is his one-way conversation with a plastic plant, and his slow-motion "NOOOO!!!" when a gun is fired at another character. Together, Wahlberg and Deschanel share a couple of fine head-slapping moments, with one being Alma's tearful confession that she had dessert with a work colleague – a revelation Elliott takes as full-blown adultery. I was greatly cheered by the idea that a humble tiramisu may be cited as grounds for divorce.
That last incident also embodies the fact that Shyamalan seems to have no idea how people really talk, think or act; and it's impossible to engage with his characters because they don't behave in anything like a rational way. When Elliott works out the true nature of the suicide toxin – it's being released by the plants as revenge for our butchering of the planet – he makes one nutty decision after another, ending with him and his group racing through fields desperately trying to outrun the wind, but none of this makes sense on a practical level or a metaphorical level. Shyamalan never gives his concepts any depth or structure, he doesn't do the spade work required to make sure they hold up to scrutiny, he simply expects us to take what we see on faith and not ask too many questions. Every five minutes somebody will say something like "It's just an act of nature, and we'll never fully understand it", but that doesn't paper over the gaping holes and illogical tangles that plague the screenplay.
This is the sixth film Shyamalan has made since he first came to mainstream attention, and it's getting increasingly hard to see how he can pull himself out of this creative rut. The Sixth Sense feels like the work of a different filmmaker, and it's as if Shyamalan's subsequent films were made by somebody who desperately wanted to ape that success but had no idea how he had gone about achieving it. The Happening is an indefensibly stupid film in every single way; it doesn't work as a thriller, a horror, or as a finger-wagging treatise on saving the environment, and it doesn't even have the patented Shyamalan twist; things just continue to build to a certain point, until they stop, and then he finally brings the film to a close. This is a film made by a man who has completely run out of ideas, and who seems more lost with every passing picture. Less than a decade ago he was being hailed as the heir to Spielberg and Hitchcock. Hey, shit happens.