The Happening, Part I: The twisted face of mankind

The author is behind an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s films. There are several articles on each work: The Sixth Sense (1999, here, here and here), Unbreakable (2000, here, here and here), Signs (2002, here, here, here and here), The Village (2004, here, here and here), Lady in the Water (2006, here and here), The Last Airbender (2010, here and here), After Earth (2013, here and here), Split (2016, here, here and here), and an initial reaction to Glass (2019). This is the first article on The Happening (2008), and a second article and a piece on The Visit (2015) are upcoming. All the articles can also be accessed through this overview, which also contains statistical information and links to external articles.

*

The Happening (2008) is the most ridiculed film of M. Night Shyamalan‘s career. It is the first of three compromised big studio productions where he no longer had final cut and thus diminished influence. From being Disney’s golden boy from 1999 to 2004 who called all the shots – except for marketing, often unfortunately – via a stop-over at Warner with still full control over Lady in the Water, he was now reduced to shopping scripts around trying to ignite interest.

Although on an intimate human level there is more resonance to The Happening than his “children’s films” of this period, The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013), this foray into the disaster movie is this author’s least favourite Shyamalan film. For one thing, except for some inspired suicide scenes, including the brilliant opening, visually it is his far most unremarkable work. And for once there is considerable substance to the critical complaints.

The upcoming second article about The Happening will discuss it on general terms and grapple with various aspects that can make watching it a maddening experience.

We shall start out with positive vibrations, however: this initial piece shall exclusively deal with the film’s third act and its two epilogues, spanning its last 25 minutes, which are excellent. After two brief introductory chapters, the walk-through starts here, then some theories are discussed, before the first and the second epilogue are examined.

For readers unfamiliar with the story of The Happening, here is an outline of the plot.

*

The reset of a film

The start of the third act: the camera closes in on a chart of outbreaks on a news programme and dissolves into the trees at a place that may host the next outbreak, also re-establishing the nature surrounding the heroes as a threat.

The third act of The Happening, as the three protagonists arrive at the isolated house of the hermit Mrs. Jones – hereafter often called Crazy Lady, for eventually very obvious reasons – marks a new start for the film. It leaves behind the narrative and tonal quicksand of earlier regions to reach firm ground, for many reasons:

  • The quirky humour often used to confusing and/or alienating effect is from now on banished from the film (with the sole exception of Alma calling the Crazy Lady “Exorcisty”, a brief flare-up we can forgive because it is quite spot-on).
  • The motivations and even personalities of the characters, often nebulous so far, have crystallised into clarity: both Elliot and Alma are immature, almost childlike persons who have shied away from responsibilities in their lives. They don’t have children because Alma wanted to wait for “me to grow up”, Elliot says; on the other hand Alma seems petrified in the moment she realises that the daughter of Elliot’s best friend will be her responsibility. (“Don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it”, Julian memorably says.) Finally, the earlier mentions of their marital problems, often through strange hints or hard-to-understand jokes, have gone: having matured by way of their ordeals, Elliot and Alma can now pass for a regular couple who simply try to survive the disaster, and also save Jess, the girl entrusted to them.
  • Within these new parameters, this author can see no problems at all with Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel‘s acting in the rest of the story. (And the sweet Ashlyn Sanchez as Jess is excellent throughout the film.)
  • The introduction of an enclosed space plays to Shyamalan’s strengths, for example by allowing him to use buildings and interiors in shots that enrich the experience through stimulating compositions and play on light and shadow. This is in stark contrast to earlier parts of the action, along roads or out in fields with limited means to create striking, mood-enhancing images. (Although in The Village, during the heroine’s trek through the woods, he proved this to be indeed possible, but the event-filled, B-movie approach of The Happening has so far not allowed room for such aesthetics.)
  • The pace of the third act is considerably slower, letting Shyamalan do something he excels at: creating tension and foreboding through careful use of purely cinematic means. (To some extent, the tempo is reflected in the average shot length, which is 6.95 on the preceding parts but 7.74 for the last section. The overall average is 7.16. Look here for statistics about shot durations.)
  • There are fewer moving parts of strangeness, whereas earlier there was kind of quirk-within-quirk-within-quirk: off-the-wall heroes with weird ways of talking teaming up with an eccentric, strange-looking couple making inconsequential fuss about hot dogs (and as soon as they are out of the picture they are replaced by two goofy, obnoxious and precocious teenagers), then meeting a peculiar soldier with a further reservoir of odd expressions like “cheese and crackers”. At the same time they have to contend with an outlandish, ill-defined threat that seems to defy science and about which new theories are constantly formed. Although a lot of the above is clearly intended as humour, this is overload, for the farcical elements do not sit well with the intensely dark backdrop of a graphically depicted suicide epidemic, nor with the superb James Newton Howard‘s serious and heartfelt score. In the last 25 minutes, however, both heroes and surroundings seem quite normal and recognisably human, and although the disaster still lurks in the background, there is only one element of strangeness: the Crazy Lady.
  • For a long time there are no attempts to convince us that the wind represents danger and that it is possible to run away from it.

Houses

(top) The empty model home; an advertisement board for the new development it is part of; (bottom) a house turned into a fortress; the house of the Crazy Lady.

Houses are important in The Happening and they mark a methodical thematic progression. The characters arrive at a house that seems to contain everything you could ask for, but it is a model home, with every object turning out to be fake and useless (a metaphor of the ordinary, materialist US). Then they come to a house whose inhabitants have barricaded themselves, and shoot at passing strangers, desperate from fear of the epidemic (a US letting irrational fear of terrorism command their lives). Finally there is a hidden-away house in the woods where – like the characters of The Village – a woman in late middle-age has isolated herself from the rest of mankind, whom she despises. Over the years she has lost all humanity, however, and being forced to take in the strangers makes her paranoia skyrocket into raving lunacy.

In the first house there is no one; in the second we can hear but not see the people inside; but in the last house a lone human being steps out of the shadows, an apocalyptic embodiment of out-of-control rage. Her status as a metaphor character is strengthened by her everyman name, Mrs. Jones. The area where she lives is called Arundell, which rings like a fairy tale name and a place of fable. There is also a regression in play: as the heroes enter increasingly desolate terrain, they are in a way moving into the past, since the houses become progressively older, with the last house even without electricity – deliberately living in the past is another echo of The Village – a retreat all the way from the modernity of the big cities at the story’s beginning.

Walk-through

The following analysis can be likened to a written commentary track. Sometimes there are “flashbacks” to scenes preceding the third act, which are marked with red borders. A lot of the dialogue will be given but not all. Every shot will be paid a visit, however, but in a few places their sequence is slightly changed to make the characters face each other in shot montages. (This is always noted, with a (*) at the start of the caption.)

Example: in the film we see Elliot first and then Alma looks at him (top). In the analysis the shots have been switched around (bottom) to make the visualisation more harmonious.

*

When we arrive at this house in The Happening, this author feels almost as drained as the characters, not from suspense but from struggling with the film’s troublesome middle section. It is nice to know, then, that a safe haven awaits in a lunatic’s house. For here also resides the good old M. Night Shyamalan, who is letting his scenes breathe and thoughtfully crafts his shots.

Already here there is a processional, foreboding quality to the staging: how they are arranged in two layers in a somewhat unusual fashion, how Elliot after they have discussed what to do steps out of the frame in a slightly odd manner, while she steps forward, taking over his position of prominence…
…and instead of her earlier, often borderline-silly starings and overwrought facial expressions, an apprehensive Deschanel is here controlled and soulful, her highly distinctive features employed as a built-in estrangement effect…
…as Elliot goes to check out the house, no one can be seen. He rings a bell…
…and via the block-and-reveal technique often used in Unbreakable, Mrs. Jones is unveiled with dramatic effect. It is as if she is arising out of the place itself, almost supernaturally called forth by the bell. Also, hidden as she was behind Elliot’s head, there is a feeling she is arising out of him, in line with a theme of the film: the fear and violence residing in the human mind can be as dangerous as the external threat. Betty Buckley now delivers a perfectly modulated introduction of her character: a careful mixture of superiority, mocking, haughtiness, condescension, her sullen voice and body language exuding a low-key hostility, even menace. (She says the bell is for “Clement – he’s a retriever”, but since a dog is never seen around later this is likely a lie, to signal that there are defensive measures to her disposal towards strangers. Also, her isolation is complete: even the dog has gone.)
Look how she sits enveloped by plants, as if somehow connected to the disaster. In her singularly creepy way she utters the memorable line: “Why are you eyeing my lemon drink?” Elliot seems more stricken by fear than at any time before (after gunmen, neurotoxins in the air, mass evacuations).
Is he having a premonition of things to come? This would recall the curious moment when his pupils are leaving after school has been closed: he looks up with a “hey, guys” as if he wants to say something but just looks down again with a resigned expression: “Nothing.” Many of his students likely ended up as victims.
When Mrs. Jones gets up it becomes clear that not only does she have plants on her blouse too, but it also matches the wall colour. She has indeed become one with the place.
As she very reluctantly asks them in – “I suppose the kind thing for me to do is to offer you supper. I ain’t gonna ask you again” – Elliot’s face and posture are a study in humiliation. He has been silent during the whole encounter.
As Mr. Jones walks past the camera, the focus is racked to Alma and Jess, expressively standing lost and vulnerable amidst the environment – another of those small staging details adding to the film’s cumulative rhetorical force.
Filmed from behind, the hostess is made out to look ominous, secretive and dominant (also visually, towering over them). The mood is very tense, with hardly a sound.
(*) Since background information on Mrs. Jones is very spare, it is tempting to lend much emphasis to this shot. A plausible theory is that it shows a young Mrs. Jones with her husband – later we see she wears a wedding ring – a military man killed in the line of duty, which would be a good reason for her hatred of human society and the obligations it puts on its members.
Mrs. Jones tries to make small talk and Alma follows up the invitation by remarking, insincerely after searching for something to say, that she has a beautiful place.
(*) “There’s a springhouse in the back. They used to hide people from slave chasers back there.” (This mention of a dark chapter of US history calls back to the many similar references in The Sixth Sense, see this chapter.) The heroes exchange glances, Alma rolling her eyes in reaction to this quaint piece of information, with the same uninterested, smug and complacent attitude towards eccentric non-urban people…
…as towards the greenhouse keeper and his speech about talking to plants.
“It has a speaking tube running under the ground to the main house. You can hear each other like you were in the same room.” Her lines contain useful information for the later narrative, but this is not necessarily unduly expository dialogue: it fits the behaviour of people unfamiliar with each other, talking to avoid an awkward silence (although there is some obvious pride in Mrs. Jones about the history of her little world). Then after a brief pause, and a tiny, almost scared glance, she continues, possibly attempting to establish herself as the dominant force of the conversation, with the strange question: “So, what’s with you two? Who’s chasing who?”
Elaborating on this, she produces a wonderful moment, in something that, while Buckley makes it sound natural, seems a parody of syntactically tangled, rural folksiness: “Ain’t no time two people staring at each other, standing still, love in both their eyes, at the same time, equal.” (This is reminiscent of the sometimes convoluted sentences used by the late 17th Century community in The Village.)
“Truth is, someone is chasing someone. That’s the way we’s built. So? Who’s chasing?”
A very sweet moment, Wahlberg looking endearingly sheepish and Deschanel using her natural charm. (Gone are the days of awkward dialogue about eating tiramisu and screwy anecdotes of cough syrup in pharmacies – these are now real, relatable people.)
Suddenly, the mood is warm and friendly, but we have been subjected to a piece of misdirection, meant to lull us into a false sense of normality. Now comes one of the most devastating moments in all of Shyamalan’s work (the author has seen it countless times but cannot help gasping every time):
Jess reaches for a cake but her hand is smacked down with the speed of lightning, the power of the moment greatly augmented by an exceedingly well timed and crafted sound design that combines the clattering of a cup and a hand hitting the table. Although Mrs. Jones seems a little taken aback at herself, she is like the scorpion in the fable, she cannot help stinging, because it has become her nature.
Immediately after the slap, as if it too is taken aback, the camera pulls away (with a discreet musical flourish quietly lamenting the social blunder before mildly echoing the dramatic main “danger” theme). This new distance is painstakingly held for the rest of the scene from this angle. An empty chair is now included, where a husband should have sat, a dark and telling sign of her condition and personal loss. After a long pause in frozen silence, she admonishes Jess: “Don’t touch things that aren’t yours.”
The second article will examine visual references, but this echo with another fraught meal scene, in Signs, is so telling we cannot wait: the same type of camera movement, and the ominous chair is in the earlier film substituted with a much more overtly important object, the babycall, warning that the aliens are afoot.
Their exchange of stunned glances forms a telling echo to the earlier overbearing situation. Elliot asks: “Do you have a radio, Mrs. Jones?”
“No. I got enough to fill my time right here. I mend my own things. I grow my own food.” She claims to have no contact with others at all. Like a queen performing a ritual she magnanimously gives Jess a cake.
“Mrs. Jones, something’s happened along the East Coast.” “Whatever it is that you think is so important that you need to tell me, don’t. Just keep it to yourself.” Shyamalan has denied us close-ups of the hostess until now, to striking effect, since we now see the bitterness etched into her features. She is watching the others carefully, her sullen side glances particularly expressive.
Now comes her sterile credo: “The world doesn’t care about me. I don’t care about it.”
Now the observant viewer can see something else: she seems to have a frightful scar across her throat. (Because of slight differences in lighting and neck angle it was not that clear in the first close-up; our attention was also held by her compelling expression.)
It could be an odd-looking wrinkle, but small vertical lines across a single horisontal line look like stitches having being made. If a scar, it is a subtle, inspired touch, potentially hugely important for understanding her wretched personality. Cutting one’s own throat is a very unusual method of suicide, so she could have been subjected to a hideous crime. (Did this cause her husband’s death rather than military duty?) This would put her even firmer in The Village territory, where an entire community have rejected the outside world after horrific crimes, and violent intruders are also found in Unbreakable, the Signs aliens, the monsters in The Village, the Scrunt and the hero’s past in Lady in the Water. A scar would also connect to her later suicide, by cutting her throat against a broken window. Many of the other suicides happen through things/means that the victims hold dear or reflect their personalities.
“Suppose I have to let you spend the night,” she says impatiently and throws the napkin violently down on the table, furious about what long-rejected social convention now forces her to do.
Except for the third act’s establishing shot, this is the first of many exterior shots of the house. Given that the heroes believe nature to be the cause of the disaster, it is important that we see vegetation in the foreground and windy movements in leaves.
They have a hushed discussion about their hostess’ creepy behaviour but Elliot maintains that they just have to put up with her: they desperately need a place to stay. (Strangely enough, they do not mention the scar. Is it a late addition, not mentioned in the script? According to the IMDb trivia – but no source is given – the entire film was shot in sequence. Was it just a wrinkle after all?) Since Alma now has matured a bit, it is almost moving that she calls Mrs. Jones “Exorcisty”, a callback to her off-beat pop-cultural references (“you’re acting like the Fatal Attraction guy, here – I feel like I’m going to take a shower and see your silhouette on the shower curtain.”)
(*) Mr. Jones increasingly morphs into Crazy Lady behaviour, with manic paranoia manifesting itself: “I hear you whispering. Planning on stealing something?” “No, ma’am, we’re not.” “Plan on murdering me in my sleep?” “What? No!” What is more priceless here: her exquisitely poisonous tone or Elliot’s protesting, innocent face, his rational mind trying to process and deflect these insane accusations? There is a lot of underlying black humour in this situation.
(*) Afterwards, she just trundles off without a word, leaving Elliot in stunned silence.
The next morning Elliot wakes up alone in bed…
…and this shot kicks off a motif of seeing characters framed by windows, a fine shot making him look extraordinarily small and insignificant. Considering the external threat, the creepers on the wall become creepy…
…as he comes down, on the top of the stairs he hears the playful voices of Alma and Jess, but no one can be seen: the house seems empty. Note how Shyamalan deliberately slows things down, in a leisurely 41-second take as Elliot searches the house. At the same time we are gradually drawn into his point-of-view…
…even stronger here: this starts out as a moving point-of-view shot approaching the half-open door, then Elliot steps into the shot. Very hesitantly he approaches the door, and very slowly the door is opened, time stretched out in excellent tension-building…
…from now on we are fully tethered to his point-of-view in a very Hitchcockian situation…
…after saying “Mrs. Jones” he enters to check out the figure on the bed (the disembodied voices just before not only introduced an eerie undercurrent to the house’s atmosphere, but also gives him a reason to search the house for his fellow travellers)…
…here Shyamalan could have pulled the camera away from the door, but he wants all the religious paraphernalia to be a sudden reveal, through the cut more deliberately visible as an added element. (Religious items are nowhere to be seen elsewhere in the house, so this room takes on a sacred quality, a house within the house, a sanctuary within the sanctuary, a miniature version of the double set of perimeters in The Village).
He enters further, advancing very slowly, after having repeated “Mrs. Jones”. This is just a mechanical echo, however, because he has of course already realised it is not her on the bed (but a first-time viewer will be more unprepared for the next image)…
…it is a doll, becoming larger as we are locked into the hypnotic camera movement towards it, at the same time as its gaze is eerily fixated on Elliot and us (as soon as we see it, a faint, high-frequency drone that has persisted over the last couple of shots is cut off, plunging us into total silence)…
…immeasurably slowly Elliot comes closer, with some mood-enhancing shadow play on his face. Wahlberg is not the most expressive actor in the world, but his face works excellently in these suspense scenes, his often unchanged expression emphasising his state of transfixion.
Then he states – very perceptively! – “Crazy Lady” as we see the doll, which confirms what we sensed from further away: its face is hideously deformed. Mrs. Jones seems to pretend to have a child and its face reflects her twisted mind. (Shyamalan admires Hitchock: this is a reverse Psycho situation, where the son pretended to have a mother, her mummified body akin to a doll.) Could the doll also represent an unborn child, a child she lost due to the past tragedy? The eternal childhood of the doll could also say something about Mrs. Jones’s arrested emotional development.
There is an uncanny bond between them. Their faces are both frozen in an unchanged expression, as if the doll is hypnotising him, and as if both are trapped in a similarly helpless state and predicament. “Help me, I’m a prisoner here,” the doll might say. Their open mouths too reflect each other.
The doll can be likened to a small child that has stiffened, like the suicide victims of the disaster stop dead in their tracks. The young woman who stabs herself with her hairpin in the opening scene shares some of the same downcast gaze. There is also a fascinating echo between the crippled doll and her book, about which her friend says: “You’re at the place where the killers meet to decide what to do with the crippled girl.” (The mention of killers can also be connected to Mrs. Jones’s possible past tragedy.)
BOOM! Given the intensely personal nature of the room, her fury at discovering a meddler is not surprising, as if someone has shamed her by glimpsing her crippled soul. (The intruder situation in itself might be a link to her past.) But the level of her rage is insane as she screams with a hideously contorted face: “You trying to steal my things?” At the same time we feel some empathy for her sense of betrayal and not least for being doomed to live with such a wretched worldview. Her rage is even more pathetic contrasted with the wall crammed with religious iconography. There is a pattern too: last night the heroes whispered among themselves, and now Elliot mumbled “Crazy Lady” – both times it is as if she is drawn to them.
Again, it is impossible not to smile a little at his flustered, meek protests: “No! No, Mrs. Jones, I actually wanted to talk with you.”
“You all are gonna leave right now!” In this less tight shot we now see she is wearing a crucifix, and prominently at that, outside her dress.
Poor Elliot, who through the whole film has had to contend with irrational people, still tries to handle the situation by appealing to reason: “Ma’am, you don’t understand. There’s something happening in a few states, in this region. It’s not safe!” (It is pretty rich that he keeps on bringing up news from the outside world, exactly what she cannot stand hearing about.)
The Crazy Lady belts out: “Leave now!!” One cannot help being in awe of the raw power of this volcanic eruption. (It is interesting that her wedding ring is very prominent and close to her face as she clenches her fist.)
After she has left, the camera lingers a bit on the religious wall, whose tranquility and piety now look thoroughly estranged.
Only the previous morning, he was a regular guy teaching science to high school kids.
This odd camera placement and the forbidding bars in the foreground make for an excellent estrangement effect, calm after the storm but still foreboding.
As he looks outside we hear mumblings from afar, but as we see her wandering strangely about in the garden, it becomes clear she is saying: “the lord is my shepherd”, and the finely meshed screen door produces a nice obscuring effect.
Elliot makes a last attempt – for where else could the protagonists go? “Could we talk calmly for a second? Just hear me out. See, I’m a teacher…”
She is an emotional cripple surrounded by a crippled garden, for during dinner she said: “I grow my own food. Although I ain’t got the touch. Gardens don’t grow the way they should. Never have.” Exactly when the piano trills of the main theme begins, and a wind starts blowing, she suddenly begins to walk haltingly backwards, like some of the afflicted earlier in the film. Like for them, her “the Lord is my shepherd” just before connects her disoriented state to things familiar and dear to her. The obscuring effect of the screen door is carried forward via another latticework: the fence around the garden.
As the camera starts to move upwards, connecting her state to the trees, the dark, commanding part of the main musical theme starts.
Turning towards him, her features have softened and she looks sad, like Private Auster did before his suicide out in the field, as if bidding farewell to the world…
…suddenly gusts of wind erupt out of nowhere. Elliot realises what is coming and hurries inside, trying to avoid the neurotoxin being released.
“Alma, shut the windows and the doors!” He continues shouting her name, but she and Jess are still mysteriously gone. The film now shifts gears into a supremely enjoyable, overblown melodrama, soaked in dramatic sound effects and thunderous music. Elliot hears boots stomping against the porch…
…and there she is! It is a bit unclear whether Elliot is afraid of her personally or the fact that she might cause the toxin to enter the house, but he is definitely stricken by panic. By the way, there is an amusing touch here: the piercing eyes of the delightfully creepy guy in the picture seem to be staring right at Elliot, as if mocking his predicament. As if rubbing it in, the stare remains prominent in the shot as the camera pans to the right…
…excruciatingly slowly, as if a nightmare in slow-motion, past a painting, in which there is a reflection of the window that the Crazy Lady soon will break. (Some kind of foreshadowing?)
(Here it seems to be a glitch in the Matrix, because the painting displayed in the house of the elderly ladies with the gas masks has turned up again in the Crazy Lady house. Or does the repetition have a hidden meaning?)
The camera pans onwards, before falling to rest on another picture. Objects touching the wall are shaking as Mrs. Jones tries to crush her skull by smashing it into the wall. (Here dramatic effect definitely trumps realism, because from the outside it seemed that the walls are made of thick stone!) It does not work to her satisfaction…
…so she tries the window instead…
…with gruesome effects, shards of glass sticking out of her face, while powerful drums are pounding…
…on to the next window…
…the sudden wide shot calls forth a resonant contrast between the sowing equipment making up her everyday life and the current insanity. She crushes the window, and even though not shown, it seems to be implied that she dies by sawing over her throat against the glass.
Elliot hurries into the next room because toxin-infected wind is now howling through the window. The ultra-vigorous music stops as soon as the door is shut. He uses a towel to close the gap beneath the door. His struggle seems increasingly pathetic, however, because we have the feeling that despite all the frantic attempts to escape it is futile. Why? Because, even though we might not be fully aware of it, we remember the earlier scene where Julian and the others in his fateful car try to use clothes to close any gaps, but nature found a way after all.
A brilliant shot, which like the earlier staircase shot is heralding a new phase after a stormy situation, the overwhelming black creating a strong estrangement effect…
…now he starts hearing the voices of Alma and Jess again – it is as if he is starting to go mad…
…as the initial piano trills of the main theme forebodingly returns – but this will turn out to be a calmer, modified version – he renews the search, and finally enters a cellar-like room…
…where he realises that the voices are emanating from the speaking tube Mrs. Jones mentioned earlier, and looking out…
…he spots the others in the doorway of the springhouse, while the film returns to the window motif…
…Jess is playing with some baby frogs while Alma takes up the conversation (possibly it is not too banal to point out that the tube is both vaginal and phallic – this is after all a communication between man and woman)…
…Elliot tells them to close everything and the camera gently follows Jess to the door, where she spots a powerful gust of wind swooshing through the tall grass…
…they withdraw towards the camera, as if trying to get as far from the threat as possible…
…another elegant shot: the camera discreetly moves in a small arc in front of the window, emphasising his imprisonment. Plants are again foregrounded, visually reinforcing the threat.
In the upcoming passage it is an absolute requirement that the viewer must adopt a resolutely non-cynical approach: in great contrast to the ice-cold detachment of some of the R-rated suicide scenes, the couple’s ruminations about themselves and love are written with childlike simplicity and should be taken as a gentle fable. If the viewer can adapt to these circumstances of wilful naïveté, the parable is endearingly resonant.
The shots continues with him sitting down, a very long take totalling 52 seconds, with Wahlberg convincingly downcast – after all this is the guy who according to Alma “never gives up” – and the following dialogue unfolds: “It’s happening here. It could be the grass and the trees are doing this now. She was alone when it happened. Seems like they might have gotten more sensitive.” Alma: “It’s too dangerous to go outside, isn’t it?” “Yes.” “This is the end, isn’t it? I wish you were here.” “Me, too.” Their featureless surroundings suggest they have lost everything, stripped of civilisation. (Split diopter is used here, to hold both the tube and his face in focus at the same time.)
On the verge of tears he looks down, and for the first time his mood ring is not blue, but yellow. Now there are two shots of trees blowing in the wind, which could be marking passage of time – the duration of this possible waiting period becomes important in one of the theories later – on the other hand, it is not unnatural to assume that his touching the ring is what causes his next line, which could follow immediately. Over the last shot above he asks: “You remember our first date?”
A very painterly image, made even more unusual by the girl looking directly into the camera. These springhouse scenes mark the first time Jess’s hair is loose. To better frame her face in these dark shots? The similar hairstyle to Alma’s may also show they have become closer emotionally. Elliot continues: “You were so quiet.” Alma responds: “You bought me the mood ring.”
Elliot: “It turned purple when you wore it.” Alma: “Then you said, ‘That means you’re in love.'” Elliot: “It got you to talk, didn’t it?”
(*) Alma: “Then we checked the little paper chart, and it turned out that purple meant I was horny. You loved that.” Elliot: “I had no idea.” Alma: “Yours was blue. Peaceful, right?” (I love Deschanel’s slight stammer as she says “blue”.) Elliot: “Right.” Alma: “What color was love?” Elliot (after a long pause): “I don’t remember.” With these words, a tender wind (!) instrument starts playing, a counterpart to the piano trills initiating the dramatic main theme.
“Me neither.” (Impressively atmospheric portrait photography here.)
In a broken voice Alma says: “Elliot”.
“Yeah?” “I was just making sure you’re there.” (She was afraid he might have succumbed to the toxins in the meantime. By the way, this angle makes his marriage ring visible.) Now Elliot almost breaks down before saying: “It’s not right for it to end like this.” Now a suitably more forceful cello replaces the woodwind.
Elliot delivers a declaration of unreserved love: “If we’re gonna die, I want to be with you. I want to be with you, and I’m gonna come and be with you.” With this, the whistling background wind grows more pronounced, mixed in with the score to poetic effect, as if an extra instrument.
After a quietly intensifying track-in on the tube, she exclaims: “Elliot, don’t!” Now starts a two and a half minute dialogue-free period, until the voice-over concluding the third act, the film’s only period of silence lasting more than two minutes. (Here are some dialogue statistics for Shyamalan’s films.)
Accompanied by a full orchestral musical flourish, the camera rushes towards the window with her, imitating her agitation.
There is a nice distortion effect from the impurities of these old windows – enlarge the shot and observe how the trees look through the lower panes – adding to the unreality of the situation. Far away Elliot opens the door…
…as Alma spots him, she looks at him in a similar manner as when she saw Jess comforting Elliot. (Even though Jess must suspect that she has lost her parents by now, she still has the strength and compassion for that.) In both situations Alma observes acts of selfless love.
The main theme now returns, but tempered with compassion, and beautifully processional. Elliot is breaking out of the imprisonment forced upon him by the disaster, literally throwing caution to the four winds, a conceptual breakthrough, but born out of desperation rather than rational thinking. And with the wind howling, the upwards camera movement into the trees is repeated, calling back to the Crazy Lady getting suicidal, emphasising the danger, while also oddly lyrical.
He walks closer to the camera, closing his eyes against the howling wind, but when he opens them again, he sees something…
…in a beautiful repetition of the situation just before when Alma saw him come out, this is another act of unselfish love seen from afar, as Alma and Jess step out. With this action, the woodwind theme when they were talking about love returns, but in a sweepingly orchestral and passionate version. The piano trills are continuing, however, so these co-existing musical figures are mirroring the way these people will come together…
…Alma looks serenely down at the girl, answering Julian’s “don’t take her hand unless you mean it”…
…both look different compared to the day before, Alma has a (suitably) green dress and Jess’s hair is down, with the “safety” they have left behind held meaningfully visible in the background…
…like Elliot has the house behind him, while he is moving forwards, slowly…
…the moment is exquisitely drawn out – by slowing down the pace, foregrounding the act itself, Shyamalan turns the situation into a ritual…
…further emphasised by having them enter this shot in a stylised, processional way. The music takes on a more somber nature. Engulfed by the potentially threatening nature, they stop…
…it is he who has to take the decisive step forward – a telling counterpoint to the backward step of some of the suicidals! – and extend his hand first. He went out first too: is he more to blame for their marital problems, has he more to atone for? It can also have to do with Mrs. Jones’s “who’s chasing who” during dinner, where Elliot declared himself as the chaser. The situation is remarkably similar to her “Ain’t no time two people staring at each other, standing still, love in both their eyes, at the same time, equal.” It seems they are proving her wrong: it is now love in both their eyes.
Again, our thoughts go to Julian’s “don’t take her hand unless you mean it” – and Elliot and Alma are now definitely serious. This is the third close-up of hands clasping each other, and the others too illustrate the issue of commitment:
Before, there was Alma taking Jess’s hand – a direct follow-up to Julian’s words, after he has left to look for his wife – and the nursery owner and his wife as they realise they have just seconds until the neurotoxin will attack.
Their ritualistic movements continue, again with him in the lead…
…nothing has happened, even with the wind blowing forcefully. The music enters a conclusive mood, and the time is duly noted, with impersonal precision…
…another stylised movement. Jess is hidden behind Alma: this is about she and Elliot. Their act of defiance, which doubled as an act of resignation, was the moment they became adults. (It is telling for their immaturity that they mixed up love with being horny, when discussing the mood ring colours.)
By now the music has turned pensive and intimate, with only the piano and a string instrument left. A new family having been constituted, they enter the house. Since evil in the form of Mrs. Jones has gone, the house is theirs. For some reason it is Jess who wants them to go into the cellar-like room…
…this is only the film’s third dissolve (the second kicked off this third act), morphing into the bare room…
…perhaps it is important that they sit together here, the spot where Elliot decided upon his act of love? Also, the stripped-down surroundings seem more bearable now, with communion rather than the earlier loneliness. Hands turn up again, as a confluence around Jess (for a film with truly obsessive use of hands look up this chapter on it about The Village)…
…another poetic dissolve…
…to a track-out from the house, achieving closure with the (static) arrival shot, the movement also indicating that we are leaving the place. We hear Elliot in voice-over: “the event must have ended before we went out there”, a statement typically added in hindsight, possibly to placate confused test screening audiences craving unambiguous explanations. (This “disembodied voice snippet” method is applied at several instances in Lady in the Water, a film plagued with difficult test screenings with audiences having trouble following the story.) The shot ends with a fade to black and the music dies out with it. (The walkthrough continues with the two epilogues after the below text chapter.)

Theories

From Shyamalan’s side it might well be that, like in The Birds, a forerunner of The Happening (and the very similar Signs, as we shall see in the second article), there is no intended bullet-proof pattern, no solution that fits all the evidence. (For example, there are far-away screams in both opening scene and second epilogue, and a quarrel breaks out before the suicide wave in the field, so one could believe that human aggression makes nature release the neurotoxin, but there is no such behaviour in other suicide scenes.) We are led to believe that it is the trees and plants that are collectively punishing the human race for our transgressions but there is enough uncertainty and other cross-purpose patterns to warrant doubt and ambiguity. Let us look at some possibilities that keep nature as an agent but complicate the picture.

When did the event stop? It started in Central Park in New York at 8:33 am and the TV discussion in the first epilogue states it ended at 9:27 the next morning. The time given on the screen in the climax after the heroes have survived is 9:58, however. It is likely that 9:27 is the time of the last officially recorded suicides. When exactly did the Crazy Lady die? The possibly time-marking cut-aways to the trees as the heroes are stuck at each end of the tube indicate that considerable more time could have passed than just the moments we actually see them speak. So it is conceivable that her death coincided with the official end point, although her own demise, in this far-away place, may not have reached the authorities. Therefore she could have perished even later, shortening the time span until the heroes’ survival. Also, even if the event had generally died out, her hate might have been so strong that she caused a local flare-up.

Regardless whether she was the last victim or died together with others during the crest of the event, it is interesting to speculate that the Crazy Lady might have had something to do with the whole thing. We have already discussed the fable-like setting of her life. Her hate against the rest of mankind could have grown so immense that in some witch-like metaphysical way she could have set the whole event off, but ultimately it became so powerful that she herself was consumed by it. With her death the event died too. It is also noteworthy that the last local attack happened immediately after her volcanic rage at Elliot, and it may be significant that even with such a low concentration of humans at her place, she alone seemed able to cause the toxin attack. On the other hand, Elliot was speculating that the event could have become increasingly sensitive, and the TV scientist talked about the event cresting, and in fact it was expected to, so there is always a rational explanation too. (If the Crazy Lady is the cause, how come the event reappears in France in the second epilogue? It could be that other people elsewhere have the capability to set it off.)

But if nature is attacking humans because they are destroying the planet, as the TV scientist claims, but are in denial of this, which character in the film suffers the most from denial? The Crazy Lady, who has foresworn the rest of the world. Her whole worldview is sterile and frozen, of which her unchanging puppet child is emblematic. Her lack of fertility or healthiness extends further, including a troublesome relationship to nature, as indicated during dinner when she said she did not have the touch so her garden was not growing properly. It is interesting that she is stricken precisely in the garden she is having difficulty with. She might not have had anything to do with starting it, but since she was such a fantastically wretched specimen of humanity, maybe her death atoned for the whole population, and that made the event stop?

Another focal point for interpreting this highly ambiguous work is Elliot and Alma’s act of surrender, walking right out into the danger zone outside. This act, and the fact that they were spared, can be connected with what is said about “an act of nature and we’ll never fully understand it” – twice, by people not only on opposite ends of the film but on diametrical poles of the intellectual spectrum: the TV scientist of the first epilogue and the boy in the early classroom scene. It seems significant that the boy is painted as far from intellectually inclined and uninterested in the subject being taught, but when prodded he is intuitively reaching deep inside himself, as if connecting with some ancient human wisdom, coming up with that basic truth, untainted by humankind’s culturally caused self-image as masters of nature.

Furthermore, in that classroom Elliot says: “we will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding” and “you must have a respectful awe for the laws of nature.” (Another echo with The Village, where its leader says: “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.”) This is exactly what Elliot is doing in the climax: gives up trying to understand the event and instead humbly surrenders to nature, and since his attitude of no more regarding himself as the master of nature signals that he is no danger to the planet any more, he is spared. He is also leaving behind his urge of trying to control things, or find rational explanations for everything, like what is behind the event and how it is functioning. He just lets it happen, walking out there. If his life is going to end now, so be it: acceptance and humility.

Finally, his decision is driven by an act of unselfish love for his wife. He cannot stand being separated from her any more, so he puts himself in mortal danger just to be with her. At least on a metaphorical level, this act of love could have been so powerful that it might have caused the whole event to cease, a very Shyamalanian concept. (In addition to The Village, love likened to a supernatural force can be found in Lady in the Water and Glass.) If this is the case, the funny thing is that he does not understand it himself, because he later suggests that the event must have ended before they went out there…! His substitution of a rational attitude with an act of love, with purity, stands in poetic and meaningful contrast to all the suicide victims, who themselves lose all ability to think and act rationally: they just kill themselves. It is implied that the reason is that the brain’s self-preservation mechanism has been flipped, leading to automatic self-damage. On a metaphorical level, however, the film offers an utterly bleak statement about mankind’s state of mind: when the urge to self-preservation is removed, their first impulse is to kill themselves.

In Zen Buddhism a kōan is an enigma, unsolvable through the intellect alone, that is intended to put the student into a state of confusion to pave the way for a spiritual breakthrough. One could say the whole trajectory of The Happening is designed to subject the hero to such a riddle, to break him down. Even with his scientific training, after all his theorising and reasoning, he is still unable to grasp the solution, as he sits isolated in his bare room, increasingly dejected, rambling on about the lack of pattern.

The early classroom scene presents a foreshadowing of his attempt at pattern-recognition, as he is urging the pupils to suggest reasons that bees keep dying off. Many ideas are offered, but there is no solution to this either, leading him to the “we will never understand” proposition mentioned above. On a thematic level, all the events of The Happening are intended to lead him from his intellectual proposal of that state of non-understanding in the safe, theoretical laboratory situation of the classroom, to experience and integrate the same idea in a real-life situation and feel it in his body.

In addition to Elliot’s micro-level theorising that plants and trees are causing the event and that a critical number of people collected within the same area will provoke an attack, the whole society is in the throes of a similar guessing game. In the course of the film the following is suggested: terrorists, water contamination, nuclear power plants, CIA-developed drugs with psychotropic properties, and in the epilogue it is said that “most people believe it was the government”. Contrary to what happens to Elliot, however, there is no resolution, no declaration that love is essential, from society at large.

The first epilogue

The first epilogue, fading up from black…
…changes are indicated: Jess is in red instead of blue. She is asking wordlessly for something…
…Alma realises it is the picture Julian gave Jess before he went away to find her mother. (According to the IMDb, the woman in the picture is Ashlyn Sanchez‘s real mother, Charity Renee Sanchez.) Here there is an interesting link to the picture of Elliot and Alma seen before the evacuation. Instead of the picture, something directly related to it was taken, a memento of happier days. Perhaps due to another premonition, Elliot brought the mood ring on their journey into the unknown.
This is sweet: through the picture, Jess’s dead parents are now going to follow her on her first school day.
There is a silence, and then Alma asks: “Are you okay?”
Then, surprisingly, Jess says in a clear and unhesitant voice: “Yes, Aunt Alma. I love you.” (It is unclear whether these are her first words since the disaster ended three months ago – probably not, since Alma would have been more surprised – but it might be the first outright declaration of love.) A moved Alma reciprocates…
…and the embrace points back to this event, Jess comforting Elliot after Julian has likely perished in Princeton, with Alma as an overwhelmingly moved spectator. The circuit of embraces is now complete, however.
But there is yet another parallel at play, involving photographs and hugs: when Julian gave the picture to Jess, this ended with an embrace. Alma then took responsibility for Jess, in an “embrace” of hands, which now in the epilogue has achieved closure in a proper embrace. Her responsibility for the child, about which she was so apprehensive, has got closure too.
Elliot sees Jess off. The pace is very leisurely now, this two-shot scene takes (slightly more than) 30 seconds.
Back at home, there is a 77-second shot tracking slowly in on the TV before falling to rest, as we follow an animated discussion about the event. The slick host is in denial, rejecting the scientist’s claim that “we have become a threat to this planet”. He also rejects the idea that plants and trees were behind the event, and says that “most people believe it was the government” since the event was only happening in the Northeast, and that “if it had happened in one other place, anywhere else, we could all believe what you’re saying.” The scientist’s guess is that it was a prelude, a warning. (So one can hope that mankind becomes convinced after the later Paris attack, but that may turn out to be the real thing, a vast cataclysm, without hope for us.)
In the bathroom Alma is watching a small object, in a way reminiscent of how she stared at her mobile before the evacuation, willing it to stop ringing (it is her suitor calling). Another indicator of change: Alma’s hairstyle is a bit different. On the whole there is a marked contrast to her earlier childish self…
…Deschanel is at her very best in this epilogue, here very restless, sometimes checking the time, in a 24-second shot…
….we close in on the object, which turns out to be a pregnancy test. (Here there is a faint but meaningful echo with the Crazy Lady’s doll, her pretend-child.) A drone starts on the soundtrack. It will soon become important.
A brilliant shot of Deschanel with emotions racing over her face, while Alma is glowing with the realisation that she is pregnant.
Elliot on his way back spots her…
…another immensely charming shot, Alma dancing while standing still…
…with Elliot slightly bemused.
On this street they perform a variation of the earlier movement towards each other during the climax, both strongly associated with love…
…and like we did not hear what Jess whispered – movingly overcoming her muteness at that point – to Elliot to comfort him (another step in Alma’s maturation process, judging from her expression watching them)…
…we do not hear what Alma tells Elliot – although it is easy to guess! – while the image fades to black.

This may look like an unreservedly happy ending, but Shyamalan and composer James Newton Howard have a subtle ace up their sleeves, creating a layer of shading that becomes a highly satisfying contribution to the film’s ecological theme. The drone that started earlier, here, is joined by a piano figure in the middle of the shot of Alma’s happy dance, here. It is a slow, hesitant lament, in fact the same theme playing when Julian leaves Jess with the protagonists (then with just a sad violin added). It also contains some warmth, however, as long as we see the couple, but it becomes increasingly darker as it will go on to enshroud the terrifying second epilogue. So if one becomes aware of the film’s score structure, upon subsequent viewings the happiness of Elliot and Alma will be mixed with sadness carried over from Julian’s goodbye and following demise. Finally, since we also know what will happen in the second epilogue, the music will always sound a melancholy warning signal undermining Elliot and Alma’s hope for a happy future, colouring our goodbye to the heroes of The Happening, as if we are also bidding farewell to a way of life.

The second epilogue

Even the slow fading up from black that introduces the second epilogue, which may or may not take place at the same time as the first one, exudes menace and estrangement, reducing people to silhouettes and stealing their colours…
…we will soon realise we are in Paris, the first foreign location for Shyamalan, and the only specific non-US one at this point of writing in 2019. (We exclude the India-set, non-professional Praying with Anger; The Last Airbender was partly shot in Greenland but in the diegesis this is a fantasy location, and the far-future After Earth was partly shot in Costa Rica.)
We soon concentrate on two young men, (played by, from left, Cyrille Thouvenin and Stéphane Debac), the one to the right announcing (in French): “I should drop my bicycle off at the apartment before I go to work.” The other one asks: “Can you make Nadia’s party tonight?” Eerily, the first guy repeats his bicycle remark. Then, exactly like in the film’s brilliant opening scene (to be analysed in the second article), a faint, shrill scream is heard, to give one of the characters a reason to look around, and using his point-of-view shots to create a stronger identification with him…
…but like in the opening scene, nothing can be seen, everything seem normal…
…the “protagonist” is relieved, but his friend again repeats the remark about the bicycle, but now just a fragment of it and in a pathetic voice, and when our man turns around again (an insistent pulse has been added to the music and as he turns the piano figure is replaced by a plaintive cello, as if it is that sound that draws his attention)…
…everyone has stopped dead in their tracks. (For some reason the man with the dog has mysteriously disappeared.)
“Mon dieu!” our guy exclaims while the other one is now reduced to just two words, uttered haltingly: “Mon… ve-lo” (“my bicycle”, the simpler French word sounds more pitiful), as if he is saying farewell to his friend, and life, through a rapidly diminishing vocabulary. The camera moves in, awarding a close-up to the last man standing in the film, but this makes him also totally alone with his fear…
… and the sporadic whistlings of wind that began when he turned for the last time, have now become continuous and more ferocious. There is a storm brewing in the distance, before another fade to black. This time, however, the artificial darkening is emphatically loaded with meaning.
This comparison between the two last fade-to-black situations does not make the future for the couple look any brighter.
There is a striking similarity between epilogue and opening, not only in action, but in the park setting, dialogue structure, the number of protagonists. In composition too: a straight line is narrowing into a vanishing point, in Paris in both directions, and in Central Park, another line, of benches, partly compensates for the absence of the other direction. The feeling is that mankind is in a big one-way street, even more ominous since our “line to oblivion” is flanked by trees, our potential punishers.
The last shot of the film shows civilisation dwarfed and overwhelmed by nature, in a parallel to the opening scene’s second shot. And this state encompasses both ancient and modern architecture – the entirety of human endeavour.

As indicated by the close mirroring of opening and ending, this is not just an epilogue but a full circle, an endless cycle to be repeated until mankind has changed for the better or become extinct.

Read next: