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Small details in a conceptual nightmare

The Happening
Whatever else it has, M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening does have its small moments of genius, like all cinema, like any art form that allows, purposefully or inadvertently, reality to creep in. Here is an incomplete catalog of a maligned film's better details.
-Parks. Not just regular parks, dangerous parks. No longer a picturesque setting to have affluent protagonists kill expositional dialog, our urban oasis of floral respite bite back at our casual, indifferent utility of their artificial existence.
-Trains. Except for westerns, Japanese movies, and the average European film, one would think trains no longer exist in 21st century cinema. In the U.S. one may even be right, but there is something intrinsically cinematic about trains (something to do with the unavoidable combination of interior space and exterior space), something about fate too, about squashing strangers in a claustrophobic, moving space (quick conjecture: trains are cinema but planes are not; also, cf. Benning's RR). Heck, even the aforementioned expositional scenes (like Zoey Deschanel's phone call to "Joey") when set on trains acquire something special: the distinct presence of other people in near proximity, the distinct knowledge something else is happening (travel, the outside world) while the story exhibits itself. Also, train stations are nice dead zones (cf. The Lady Vanishes), especially so in this film, even in a typically curtailed and unexploited scene, where Mark Wahlberg wonders with exasperation just where the hell the train stopped and a cabal of conductors seem immersed in a conspiracy of ignorance, and then disappear from the film for no apparent reason.
-Forsaking urbanity. Theme aside, The Happening quickly moves out of the cities towards unknown, essentially unnamed Northeastern small towns. Not described at all cinematically (no community, population, center, etc.), there is still an indelible impression of a massive non-urban countryside to this film. A small town diner, packed to the gills and then promptly abandoned, is a scene you could never find anywhere else, yet another sense of a different, strange (unknown?), pervasive yet dispersed grouping of people and space outside of American cities.
-Acting styles. Shyamalan has a great deal of trouble with tone in this movie, trembling to embrace the more direct comedy of Lady in the Water (2006) but never taking that fateful step forward. That leaves a great disparity in acting styles: Wahlberg with the muscular serenity of a 1940s hero (much of the film's first half echoes old Hollywood, both in storytelling and in Wahlberg); Deschanel with the quirky neurosis of a certain kind of contemporary realist cinema; John Leguizamo simultaneously employing sympathetic affect and insane disposition (he leaves the film early, for shame, the acting was a firecracker waiting to go off, instead sputtering pathetically out by way of the plot); and various near contemptuous "small town portraits" which go so far to caricature the small cast as to sabotage Shyamalan's clearly intended shorthand (think the nursery couple, the lonely old woman).
-Middle finger to the audience. For such a B-movie concept, Shyamalan refuses to give us a B-movie execution, rendering much of the film's conceptual oomph stupid and silly instead of extreme enough to be frightening. There is a pay-off though: a significant, if hollow, subversion of the narrative goal for 95% of all Hollywood cinema from the 1920s til now: the coupling of the central male and female characters. The film flirts dangerously at first with suggesting the only way for our characters to survive is to break into smaller and smaller groups: eventually forcing our couple to split up to survive. (Sadly, Shyamalan refuses to ask questions like that, questions director Frank Borzage answers with cannon salvos roughly seventy years earlier.) But what the film does do rather than force or challenge separation is to not only suggest but make dead certain that the coupling of Walhberg and Deschanel is doing its part to doom the world (or at least Paris), is responsible for future deaths, and that the Spielbergerian turn the epilogue takes (if you know what I mean) is not a life-bringing joy but a death-bringing curse. Biting!

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