Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Wind Will Carry Us: THE HAPPENING

Then, one spring, a strange blight crept over the area, and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community; mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death.
    — Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring”

An early image in The Happening: construction workers casually stepping off towering scaffolding, raining down, plummeting to their deaths. It really sets the stage. We’ve already seen a woman stab herself in the neck, and later will see a man splayed out in a field awaiting an approaching industrial lawn mower. Still elsewhere we will see a cozy suburban street with lush, verdant trees, and corpses hanging through their branches. These are indelibly frightening images, memorably staged and haunting in their lingering impact and implication. Here’s the deal with M. Night Shyamalan’s oft maligned The Happening, which merely had the misfortune of being released at a time when his artistic reputation was on a downswing — a nasty course correction from the “Next Spielberg” hype he’d been getting from his great early films like The Sixth Sense and Signs. That wasn’t fair. But The Happening is a good thriller, and an even better work of deep dread. It’s a vision of society suddenly falling apart, in which a damaging pandemic sweeps across the land and no one knows what to do or how to stop it. No one can weigh the risks, and no leadership emerges to contain the threat. There’s just a primal sense of escape, and even then despair. The characters are running, knowing it has to be futile. And yet they run anyway, even as the world falls down around them, as groups splinter and squabble over how to survive, as conspiracies bubble up as no one has enough information, as people turn cruel, selfish, and violent, sometimes out of desperation or fear, but scarier still, sometimes inexplicably.

When the film first arrived in 2008, and ever since, its loud detractors have scoffed at its twist. Spoiler: plants are emitting toxins that are causing people to kill themselves. Ha, they laugh, isn’t it funny to think nature is the big danger in this movie? But this isn’t a twist. It’s a reveal. (This is the case in more of Shyamalan’s films than his reputation commonly asserts, and leads to uncharitable readings of his other unfairly dismissed efforts, too.) Besides, can’t you do that belittling with every monster? Take the movie at its word, and it is scary, truly scary, to imagine a world of ecological horror, in which humanity is revealed once and for all to be at the mercy of nature and its wrath. Shyamalan sharply sees the terror of our vulnerability to nature’s whims. As our world reckons ever more acutely with the ravages of viral infection and climate change, here is a movie that grows only more unsettling. A scene where the fleeing humans race through a field, the wind whipping through the vegetation, is not about outrunning danger, but the overwhelming hopelessness of thinking you can. It takes something that can be normal and soothing — the noise of wind through leaves on a brisk day — and turns it devastatingly dangerous, an all-encompassing sense that we can’t hide from something we can’t see.

In Shyamalan’s vision, characters’ personal problems pale against the enormity and the unknowability of this scenario. So when the central relationship conflict between Mark Wahlberg (admittedly he’s not quite right for the role of a science teacher, but sells confusion and stress) and Zooey Deschanel (whose wide-eyed confusion matches the situation with the right befuddlement) doesn’t quite work, it’s at least partially because of course the larger trauma is overpoweringly the main concern. (And this is hardly the only effective horror movie with an undercooked subplot.) More evocative is John Leguizamo, who brings palpable real tension and pain when confronted with a danger he can’t confront, a situation he can’t control, for the benefit of himself and his family. All through the film are these sometimes absurd (the lions!), sometimes peculiar (the lemon drink!), sometimes recessive, quickly-sketched observations of all manner of people reacting to the unknowable dilemma. Some grow hysterical. Some say stupid things. Some go boldly in the wrong direction. Some are suspicious others want what little they have. Some have selfishness that brings others doom. Maybe they should try wearing masks? (You should.)

Shyamalan’s filmmaking remains controlled here. His camera is typically patient, with the great Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography catching the horror precisely, as shocking for elisions as it is for gore—think a chain of suicides the camera follows just out of frame, following instead the dropped gun as it passes from person to person. The suspense is set against James Newton Howard’s score going evocatively wild with simmering, swirling strings right out of a 1950’s sci-fi chiller. Maybe this is a Day the Earth Stood Still, scarier for having no interlocutor from the heavens to translate the moral. It's exactly as straight-faced a B-movie idea as that, flatly earnest about its points, using its concept to draw big fundamental horror about how little holds our modern human society together when you get down to it. When the film reaches its conclusion, a genre beat with ostensible safety leaving hints of the real danger lurking and lingering, ready to explode again, it’s totally clear this is a movie about how humanity’s short-term thinking and short-term memory will inevitably doom us. Even when nature fights back—revealing how we are literally killing ourselves by ignoring its warnings—we will too quickly race back to normal, inviting the danger’s resurgence.

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