Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Sometimes I feel like the only M. Night Shyamalan fan in the world. After his precocious first-timer success with The Sixth Sense, he’s followed up that fame and acclaim with a series of mysterious and idiosyncratic films that play to his signature taste of spirituality, dreams, and animism. And a lot of the viewing public, it seems to me, misunderstand or misinterpret his films. He’s one of the few directors who creates movies that are neither realistic or fantastical, but operate in a kind of twilight dream world of the in between: in between life and death (Sixth Sense), story and mythology (Unbreakable and Lady in the Water), dreams and waking life (Signs). People who see these movies as failures I think misread the films, or read only the “realistic” portion and fail to appreciate the brilliance of the in-between world: fail to see that Signs is a waking dream, for instance, or that Lady in the Water a bedtime story with the same childhood logic of dark and light. When I see those movies, I think Shyamalan is on to something – something he might need to perfect, perhaps, but that is still a refreshing genius that attempts to defy convention.
But where Shyamalan really does fail, as he does somewhat in The Village and most disappointingly in The Happening, I think it’s because he’s given in to the most self-indulgent impulses for which all his movies are routinely criticized: that his concepts are only half-baked, not fully realized, and the tight sense of suspense he assiduously creates becomes a self-parody of style without the substance to make it worthwhile.
Such is what seems to have happened in The Happening.
Shyamalan’s first mistake seems to have been either hiring the wrong casting director, or not explaining the concept of the movie well enough to his actors, for everyone in this film seems to be not only miscast, but completely off on their timing and delivery. Wahlberg especially gets to deliver some real clunkers – the kind of lines like “we need some hotdogs” that got actual unintended laughs in the theater. When an experienced director like Shyamalan can’t control the tone he wants in the movie – when the audience begins to think what they’re watching is humorous when the reaction Shyamalan wants at that moment is suspense – then you know something has gone disastrously wrong.
Like most of Shyamalan’s movies, I find the premise intriguing: a mysterious airborne malaise is spreading over the east coast, first causing people to become confused, then to lose their sense of self-preservation and seek out the nearest handy means to kill themselves. With a concept like this – and a reputation of not being a critic-friendly director – Shyamalan must have winced as he envisioned potential reviews like “audience feels the same way.” I wish I could say that such criticism wasn’t deserved. Yes, Shyamalan provides the typical Shyamalan touches to the scenes of suicide, making them appropriately odd and frightening. But all that mystery has nowhere to go.
What seems to be missing from this film is any larger metaphor for what’s going on. A perfectly intelligent (though completely implausible) explanation is finally given (again picking up on the popular “green” theme of the day)…and all that’s fine and dandy…but what is what’s happening supposed to signify?
In other Shyamalan movies it signifies something interior about the characters: a state of being that needs to be addressed and resolved. Shyamalan's theme obviously should have been this: suicide...even one mysteriously stimulated by unknown agents...signifies a collective societal despair. So Wahlberg, our hero, must have some real despair to overcome - and that should be reflected in the culture at large as well. But Wahlberg doesn't play the character that way (he's just goofily mentally absent and all wincing sincerity, like an android), and in the script, the only potential state of being we’re given here is the relationship between Wahlberg and his reluctant girlfriend, played by Zooey Deschanel. But that relationship is a mere stereotype, the dialogue between them cliché and strained, and any deeper meaning about relationships we’re supposed to take from this film is completely undermined by the stultifying interactions between the two lead characters, who have zero chemistry and act like they’re reading pesticide manuals as they run to escape the kooky death that’s infesting the brains of everyone around them. So even if despair was meant to be the resonating theme, the only people despairing in this film are in the audience.
In other words, the redemption here is unearned, a result of a cliché script, poor acting choices, and uninspired setups.
A movie likes this makes me fear that Shyamalan may be isolating himself from any constructive feedback in his writing/directing process. After so much criticism of works that indeed have some merit, he may not be able any more to sort out and listen to the useful criticism necessary to fully bake his work. In other words, his foolproof bullshit detector may have died. Because this movie certainly suffers from an oversupply of fertilizer.
Let’s hope he gets it fixed soon.