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Movie Review: The Happening

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“There are forces at work beyond our understanding.”

Forget the expectations and box office focus surrounding The Happening. This memorable thriller does what it’s supposed to do: scare audiences and provoke thought. Written, directed, and produced by M. Night Shyamalan, willing audiences get another unique cinematic experience, though it feels like you’re breaking a social taboo when you see it. Shyamalan assembles his usual crew, including producer Sam Mercer, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, and musical score composer James Newton Howard.

Something is occurring in the northeastern United States, the setting for most of Shyamalan’s films. Audiences may know what the premise is already (it’s revealed early in the plot), so it’s all about ordinary people surviving these extraordinary events. It’s a thriller where things you don’t see as threats threaten people.

The one-day plot timeline begins in Central Park in New York City at 8:33 a.m., and then continues with several disturbing events. Mark Wahlberg plays Philadelphia schoolteacher Elliot Moore who soon learns about the New York events and three key steps that explain how the premise occurs, but not what is causing it.

Characters and media consider several theories throughout the plot, and the entire experience lingers in your mind well beyond exiting the theater. Elliot predictably assumes some leadership roles, but never really makes a big impact through heroics or his logical scientific thinking.

Zooey Deschanel (Elf) plays Elliot’s wife, Alma. John Leguizamo plays Julian, Elliot’s teaching colleague. Julian has a daughter, Jess, played by rising star Ashlyn Sanchez who also had a memorable performance as Michael Pena’s daughter in Crash. Most of the troubling events render her speechless throughout the plot, including a disturbing scene on a house porch. The supporting cast includes familiar faces and veteran actors like Betty Buckley, who plays Mrs. Jones, and Frank Collison, the greenhouse owner who gave the Moores and Jess a ride.

The pace is slow and deliberate with intense scenes peppered throughout the short 91-minute plot, which almost seems like an intentional act of mercy so audiences aren’t too traumatized. Many scenes could have been even scarier, but Shyamalan uses camera shots that hide faces and make the impact more psychological than graphic.

Some additional running time could’ve produced some needed character development, especially for Alma. Deschanel’s performance never gives you a real sense of Alma, who needed a different actress with more emotional depth. The casting choices seem to adhere to an “every person” theme where ordinary people witness extraordinary events.

Some choppy editing and meandering plot directions hurt the film in the last third, but Shyamalan is able to draw upon his past experience to salvage a decent ending. The scariest sequence involves a tracking shot following a subject moving outside a house, a technique also used in the 2002 hit Signs. This unique film offers several memorable scenes (two women on a park bench) and even some genuinely funny moments.

As in his previous films, Shyamalan still challenges the audience to think while boosting the social commentary, which touches on the environment, the information age, and respecting and listening to peers. The $30 million-plus opening at the box office confirms that most filmgoers will always give Shyamalan’s film a chance. As far as complaints about missing plot surprises, the talented Shyamalan understands that it’s a shaky foundation when you build your film career only on a few twists. Recommended with reservations, and rated R for violent and disturbing images and sounds.

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