Film: M. Night Shyamalan: The Happening (2008)

It’s hard to overstate what a monumental achievement is M. Night Shyamalan’s brand new major motion picture.  No longer need M. bravely navigate the vast, deep sea a mid-sized fish among whales and sharks; with the masterful orchestration of dramatic and emotional turmoil that is The Happening, M. establishes once and for all that he is a great big aquatic creature who can chomp on all the littler fishes and eat their bones too.  He exhibits a twenty-first century understanding of man’s subconscious, while exposing the inherent deceit in conventional drama and tapping into a wondrous new arena of fear, heretofore unexplored by modern art.

The Premise, familiar to anyone who has read the title, is that a thing is taking place.  Hardly new territory for the developing master, M. plums the existential, faintly mythological, terror inherent in such an occurrence in the opening scenes.  Helpfully stereotyped New Yorkers become uncharacteristically catatonic as Something happens around them, after which they kill themselves in inspired ways – a hairpin through the neck, a flying leap off a construction site.  To be fair, M. has the most trouble with these opening scenes of mass death, allowing them to adhere too closely to disorienting, unpredictable naturalism, and not close enough to M.’s superior insight into man’s true nature.  It’s a mistake he won’t repeat.

For very soon The Unseen Force unleashes not widespread panic and extensive social disarray, but something akin to meditative complacency, as millions of New Yorkers quietly abandon their lives aboard trains bound for Bucks County, with narry an obstructive thought to destination, nor even further action.  Faintly, I am aware that M. knows something.  Something I don’t know.  Something, maybe, none of us know.  It’s as though he, M., has projected himself into the very living consciousness of modern man and forecast his future. In the pastoral cornfields of southeastern Pennsylvania.

This, too, should not surprise us. M. has long posited Bucks County as The Once and Future Mecca for discovery of all kinds, the geographic point of critical mass where Man meets his Destiny. Here, in Signs, he showed us the definitive meeting in the cornfields of man and extraterrestrial; in The Village, is it the nexus of hope and deception, embodied – not without a certain visionary delirium – by a cloak of 17th century Puritanism in the natural, isolated greenery. Now, M. cuts straight to the mortal chase, bestowing the power of death on Bucks itself, a place as characterized by Vegetation as is man by the struggle between Fear and Love. As ordinary folks pick themselves off beneath lawnmowers, slamming their cars into trees, jumping out of windows, the inevitable showdown pits M.’s heroes (cleverly cast Marky Mark and the daughter of the guy who shot The Black Stallion – neither, then, unfamiliar with exposure), trapped in their little human bodies, against the unyielding, invisible, virtually silent forces of breeze and plant hate.

Scoff if you must, ye of atomic and cancer fears, but this is the epic stuff of myth, of eventual legend. M. taps into the subconscious of our subconscious, past our ordinary terrors and into the realm of fears not yet feared. Of the fears our myopic mistreatment of the world will soon engender, paradoxically located at the point of mankind’s oldest emotion: vengeance. Abel’s worst nightmares, dreamed in the leafy Garden of Eden, would not have prepared him for the horror wrought by Cain, any more than our deepest digressions into The Unknown would prepare us for the awful hurricane of retribution rained down on us by M.

And NOTHING would prepare us for the way M. resolves the crisis and restores our faith in humanity. The big fish – the masters of cinema – have fought a constant swim against the tide between expectation and dramatic resonance, but M. proves himself the biggest fish of them all by abandoning the swim entirely and calling the tide’s bluff. Expectation has nothing to do with life, M. (and God, through the story of Cain and Abel) tells us. Mysteries do not crop up to be explained. Things happen. As we grapple with their meaning, we self-examine, compelled to counter unknowable reason with personal belief and experience. In that gap between what we understand and what we don’t, we find our True Selves, our Convictions, our Love and our Generosity, oblivious to crude earthly fact or the threat of certain bodily destruction…for in the Cosmic Sphere of Existence, we are Really Nice.

Redemption is ours.

And then, like a fart in the wind, the poisonous mystery can vanish.

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