Like just about any horror film, The Happening is full to bursting with big shots of horrified faces. Reverse shots reveal their doom: empty fields of grass. These wide eyes and gaping mouths scan the landscape for wind that might carry a neurotoxin that makes people kill themselves. It’s a remarkably simple and effective inversion of the Kuleshov effect in which sedate greenery assumes an apocalyptically sinister cast by virtue of the anguished faces juxtaposed against it. Genuinely unsettling and more relevant to lived experience every year, M. Night Shyamalan’s much-maligned film deserves better than its reputation as an inspiration for drinking games.
Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel star as a childless married couple working through commitment issues as they flee a mysterious rash of public suicides all over New England. On the road they gather rumors (government op, terrorism) and news reports to conclude that the flora is rising against malignant humanity by perspiring an airborne poison that destroys our self-preservation instinct. In time-honored disaster movie tradition, misanthropic creeps threaten our heroes along the way as much as the big boogeyman does. The journey is plausibly episodic and disjointed, punctuated by baroque death scenes that recall the Spielberg who had a T-Rex eat a lawyer off a toilet.
Shyamalan’s first R-rated film arrived as audiences were tiring of the rug-pulling shtick that made him one of the last filmmakers to become a household name. Filtering Hitchcock through Spielberg, Shyamalan offers two righteous gimmicks — a largely invisible environmental threat and the grisly suicides it causes — that compensate for the script’s grating sentimentality and a mutinous star performance. The film might have had a chance at a better legacy were it not for Mark Wahlberg’s shockingly awful presence. Every line reading is miscalculated, vacant of all emotion except for a kind of petulant whine. It’s difficult to think of another central performance so at odds with a film’s purpose. Luckily, Shyamalan’s perverse imagination for cheap thrills successfully elbows the star out of the way.