Gory Happening Doesn’t Make a Twitch of Sense

Christa Banister

DVD Release Date:  October 7, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  June 13, 2008
Rating:  R (for violent and disturbing images)
Genre:  Drama/Sci-Fi
Run Time:  91 min.
Director:  M. Night Shyamalan
Actors:  Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Spencer Breslin, Jeremy Strong

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following review contains discussion of adult subject matter that is not appropriate for young readers.  Parents, please exercise caution.

Back when Haley Joel Osment’s character was “seeing dead people” and audiences discovered that his psychologist, played to perfection by Bruce Willis, was really dead all along (gasp!) in 1999’s The Sixth Sense, director/writer M. Night Shyamalan earned rave reviews for his unexpectedly twisty endings. In fact, that’s exactly what everyone grew to expect with each new film he created—which, in turn, is probably why he started rebelling stylistically with 2004’s The Village and 2006’s Lady in the Water.

But for anyone who sat through either of those films and inevitably left with far more questions than answers, let’s just say you ain’t seen nothing yet—thanks to Shyamalan’s latest endeavor, The Happening. Not only are there no tidy (or even quasi-rational) answers to why people are spontaneously killing themselves (yep, you read that right), but the movie actually gets more confusing—and eye-roll inducing—as the minutes tick on by.

See, one of the chief problems with Shyamalan’s first R-rated flick is that it’s all style and little substance. The story begins on what seems to be a particularly ordinary morning in New York City’s Central Park. The sky is blue; people are out and about, enjoying the day. Well, until the unthinkable happens. …

With no explanation, a number of people momentarily freeze in place before simultaneously ending their lives in a number of gruesome ways. And unlike the subtle eeriness that’s building until those freaky green monsters show up in 2002’s Signs, Shyamalan opts for the Saw variety of gruesomeness (see “Violence” under Cautions, below) that someone can easily execute within the wide parameters of the “R” rating.

Sure, there’s no doubt that the movie is beautifully shot and hits all the right notes with a moving score. But apparently all of Shyamalan’s attention was focused on the inherent shock value, because the script itself is an odd, clunky mess that doesn’t give an otherwise talented cast much with which to work.

As the science teacher trying to get to the bottom of the cause of the unexpected epidemic when other theories don’t check out for him, Mark Wahlberg delivers a bland, one-note performance that mostly consists of him languidly looking at trees with wide-eyed stares and delivering his lines with little-to-no facial expression. Fun, huh?

Not that anyone could blame him, of course. With dialogue as nonsensical as he’s been given here (many times he’s forced to deliver far-too-elaborate—i.e. boring—scientific data to an audience that couldn’t care less), what’s a guy to do? Unfortunately, the same is the case for the usually adept indie movie starlet Zooey Deschanel who has also mastered the art of the wide-eyed stare to an almost zombie-like effect.

So what exactly is the cause—or the significance—of this particular happening? Is it a bad case of global warming going bonkers? Or is something far more strange and apocalyptic happening in only one quadrant of the United States? Well, unlike Shyamalan’s previous work he doesn’t pull the proverbial rabbit out of his hat in the third act. Instead all the audience is left with is a potentially intriguing premise that never really delivers the goods. It’s disturbing, push-the-envelope imagery and a whole lot of confusion that adds up to 91 minutes that are probably better spent doing (or watching) something else.

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  None.
  • Language/Profanity:  Plenty of your standard-issue profanity, including several instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A few mild innuendos.
  • Violence:  The movie earns the bulk of its “R” rating from the excessive close-ups of people committing suicide in a variety of ways. There’s construction workers walking off 10-story roofs and shown mangled after the fact, a woman plunging a large hairpin into her throat, a person slashing his own wrist, multiple hangings, and probably the worst of all, an elderly woman who dies by repeatedly thrusting her head through a series of windows, slashing her face. A piece of glass is lodged in one of her eyes before she dies. There are also shootings and a scene where a man’s arms are both ripped off by a lion at the zoo. 

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.