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 second article on The Happening (2008), the first one is here, the third here. An article on The Visit (2015) is upcoming. All the articles can also be accessed through this overview, which also contains statistical information and links to external articles.
It is not only in the third act we can find excellence in the often-ridiculed The Happening. Even though it might be unsatisfactory as a whole, M. Night Shyamalan shows a sure hand with many of the suicide scenes that form a series of intermittent short films during the first hour.
This second article about The Happening will follow the “positive vibrations” policy of the first article (which walks through the third act) with an examination of these suicide scenes. Then its motifs and visual approach are examined. Finally, its references to earlier Shyamalan films are rounded up.
From time to time the original script for the film, called The Green Effect, is referenced. It is discussed further in the third article, which examines the negative aspects of the film, including its uneven tone as well as Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel‘s often questionable performances as the central couple.
For readers unfamiliar with the story of The Happening, here is an outline of the plot.
All double-column montages in this article, for example this, are to be parsed row-by-row, left-to-right.
The suicide scenes of The Happening can be seen as a series of short films, forming islands in the otherwise treacherous waters of the film, containing its first hour’s most inspired and sharply chiselled material. They are also showcasing a remarkable variety of approaches and moods: eeriness, dramatic impact, analytical attitude, personal identification, helpless bystanders. This chapter walks through ten of the eleven violent situations in The Happening, while the crowning situation with the Crazy Lady, featuring a melodramatic approach, has been covered in the first article. (There is a potential twelfth one in the second epilogue, covered in the same piece.)
Often based on editing rather than Shyamalan’s beloved long takes, several of the suicide scenes display the same methodical sense of rhythm and build-up, which make them eternally fresh viewing, as in the mind-reading scene between Malcolm and Cole in The Sixth Sense or the weightlifting scene in Unbreakable.
The opening scene of The Happening is easily among M. Night Shyamalan‘s very best work. It has an icily electrifying effect with its unfeeling, methodical stripping away of our humanity, into machines of flesh whose prime directive is to terminate ourselves. It is at the same time trembling with existential angst and possessing a coolly poetic, haunting quality. It is also sprinkled with nice touches and a hypnotic use of point-of-view shots.
Strengthening the circular nature of the narrative – the film’s last epilogue mirrors the opening scene in numerous ways (the connections are analysed here) – the film ends on a fade to black and opens with a fade from black, thus returns to and is born from the same darkness:
From elegant-looking women to less polished blue-collar men, and fascination for violent reading matter replaced by vulgar sexual jokes. Construction workers are also appropriate victims of nature’s revenge: they are erecting edifices that displace nature and are symbols of human supremacy.
Contributing to the scene’s coolly objective feel is the fact that it is the only major suicide situation without a clear protagonist. The short exchange between the policeman and the taxi driver is more to emphasise their ordinariness than creating identification. By the way, the camera movement very close to the ground above might be called a dog’s view, which brings us to the presence of man’s best friend.
Besides creating a nice visual rhyme and strengthen the feeling of something inexorable, there might be more to the presence of dogs, both white, at the very beginning of the two park scenes. We will soon see that they are unaffected by the neurotoxin, thus demonstrating that animals are innocent in the eyes of nature, but they are also emblematic of human domination. The dog in Rittenhouse Park delights in its new freedom, and is initially clearly straining against the leash. The first dog in Central Park is held on a short leash, in itself emphasising its submissive role, but here too it seems to be a hint of it yearning for more freedom. There is also a dog in the epilogue, among the many links between the film’s beginning and end, carefully placed centrally in the shot as if to lend it importance, and that dog is definitely straining against the leash. The second Central Park dog is also given its freedom, although it seems to want to stay with its owner.
This is the only suicide scene featuring a major character with whom we have come to identify. It takes place inside a car so it is not “cinematic” in the conventional sense but it is impossible not to get caught up in it due to the precariousness of the characters, its escalating tension and the compelling, precise editing. It also opens up in the end, to devastating effect. (The article has so far examined every shot, but this scene has quite a bit of cutting back-and-forth inside the car, so the gist of it will suffice.)
This is not a suicide scene but considering its outcome it deserves a place in this bloodthirsty survey. (It was not included in The Green Effect.) It comes as a relief after a long wandering in a wilderness of increasing silliness and dull airing of marital problems minutiae on the part of the central couple. Except for a false note at the end, the scene is a finely chiselled account of tension and escalating violence, with rational people caught between the two fronts of nature’s implacable menace and human beings driven mad by paranoia and fear. Even the humour sort of works.
There is also a nice progression, at least for Alma, the wife of the hero Elliot. She did not see the gruesome video of the man being torn apart by lions. Later they observed death in the form of already deceased people on the road and from a safe distance of the binoculars, but operated by Elliot only. Then tragedy struck closer to home in the form of the mother standing near them but they did not see the suicide. Ditto for the event in the field, but this time it was a couple they had befriended who perished. Then Elliot – and only him, Alma was running away with the others – finally saw someone die, but from far away.
In the scene of the barricaded house they will both meet death close up. Elliot’s safe theorising about the world in the laboratory of the classroom collides with reality. The situation is aggravated by the presence of two slightly anti-social, obnoxious teenagers, Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.) and Josh (Spencer Breslin, brother of Abigail of Signs).
Besides the dogs and the small but expressive motifs of hands (here) and houses (here), already examined in the first article, the most pervasive motif in The Happening is doubtless trees, plants and greenery, both as threats against mankind and examples of man’s abusive behaviour towards the natural world.
Despite intermittent compelling scenes, personally this author does not think the film succeeds in being frightening, but there is undeniable niftiness to the idea that ordinary things are loaded to be sinister, especially that those things are trees and plants, greenery being generally comforting to humans. Like the suicide epidemic that flips the human preservation switch, we have to convert the green spaces that naturally occur in a vast number of shots in cinema from dead areas into deadly meaningful ones. This piece has frequently commented upon greenery during the suicide scenes, but let us round up some images from elsewhere.
Various brave attempts have been made to uncover a colour-coding of the film but they seem far-fetched. What is certain is that the primary colours red and yellow are remarkably seldom to be found in the film. This might mean that when they do occur, like when red is signalling ghost appearances in The Sixth Sense, they could carry special meaning. Red occurs primarily in the car and the landscapers in the Princeton suicide scene, but someone on this forum (search for the text “someone towards the top”) spins a theory that red is signalling suicides. But the signals seem exceedingly faint and in some cases (the dog’s ball and the dog collar) it is unclear whether the objects are really red. The steering wheel of the heroes’ car before they see the bodies in the road is red though.
The same writer’s suggestion that yellow means survival and happiness has more going for it (this page is also proposing a similar scheme), but by far the best argued colour theory involving yellow (and blue and green) is described in the third article and in fact it seems sound.
Michael Koresky in this well-argued review laments the “lack of technical finesse and storytelling lyricism” that he appreciated in Shyamalan’s earlier films. One could counter this with the director’s apparent wish to make something simpler and more direct, in order to ensure survival in a commercial film industry that just had curtailed his artistic freedom. (We will return to this in the third article.)
Neither must we forget that the earlier films were to a considerable degree mood pieces, while The Happening is a fast-moving, event-filled story with frequent turn-over in locations, which necessarily limits the opportunity for lingering atmospherics and intricate shots. (This tendency towards a livelier narrative had already started in his previous work, Lady in the Water.) And as we have seen in the suicide scenes, they are definitely not bereft of ideas, although they rely more on editing and the flow of images than usual, rather than trying to make each shot distinctive in itself.
Still, in the visual sense there is definitely something artistically unsatisfying about The Happening. The third act stands out, however, as much more confident and inspired, although not as formally adventurous than the earlier films. Like Koresky suggested, it is in the comparison with previous works that the current film is lacking. They used to be shot through with a latticework of motif strands and daring ideas in visuality and mood. If one takes a look at their articles in this analysis project, long pieces are devoted to these aspects alone. As for motifs and visual ideas, for The Happening a few paragraphs will exhaust the subject.
Many scenes, especially the non-suicidal ones, are told in a serviceable manner, lacking an ambition to be more than just functional. As to dialogues Shyamalan still resists the most conventional way of over-the-shoulder views in shot/reverse shot constellations, but his often use of close two-shots, characters facing each other, comes across as nearly as dull. It is well-known that he storyboards the entire film in advance, but rumour has it that this time he wanted to deviate into a looser and more improvised approach. Could this explain the pronounced difference in precision and intensity of many of the suicide scenes – which was ported over more or less intact from the original The Green Effect script – compared to other scenes with a more slapdash feel?
The average shot length for The Happening is 7.16 seconds and there are 15 takes lasting 30+ seconds – see general shot statistics here and a list of long takes here – falling far short of the previous films in both departments. Interestingly, the bracket of shots lasting 20-29 seconds is in the same range as earlier, bearing witness of a continued ambition to combine several narrative elements in the same shot, but not as flamboyantly. We can also see here that The Happening is one of his most talkative films (again a distinction it shares with the far superior Lady in the Water).
Shyamalan gets in a few of his trademark overhead shots (here and here) and his low-angle shots are pleasing (here and here), but fairly standard for this kind of situation with people bending over others lying down. (He has used this particular set-up several times in Signs, for example see the top image for its visual style article, and its “up-in-the-sky” motif.)
In addition to the composition of some images in the motif chapter, this is all that is notable on the cinematic side in the non-suicide scenes, and not very remarkable items at that, before the third act starts.
Have a look here for how The Happening fits into the director’s common themes, motifs, trademarks and statistics and so on.
To The Sixth Sense:
- the films are similar in that threats can materialise out of thin air: in The Sixth Sense ghosts could appear in any kind of quiet domestic situation, and in The Happening harmless things like trees and bushes can become deadly at any time
- Mark Wahlberg’s brother Donnie was cast as Malcolm’s former patient and his character committing suicide is another link
- the Crazy Lady says about her springhouse that “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
- Elliot tries to lighten Jess’s spirits by saying the mood ring tells him she will soon smile, something that eventually forces her to smile – this harks back to Malcolm trying to do the same for Cole by performing a magic trick, but here the boy is unimpressed (incidentally, in the script this scene was supposed to have the same effect as in The Happening, not only that but Malcolm and Cole were to become best friends; in the finished film, however, their relationship remained strained for a lot longer)
- during the second park suicide scene, the camera manoeuvre, composition, low angle and car queue situation are obviously similar to the late scene in The Sixth Sense, just with the camera moving the other way, towards the car with Cole and his mother (the situation in the earlier film too is connected with death: there has been a fatal accident up ahead, the reason for the queue)
- in a very late scene (analysed here) Joseph is approaching the kitchen and he hears soft voices, but with an eerie, disembodied ring to them (such voices are unusual in his home since his parents has been virtually estranged), while in The Happening Elliot hears laughter and voices, also here produced by his family, inside the Crazy Lady’s house from a mysterious source (see also here)
- an amusing curiosity item: the man with the comically brutal, thick voice announcing that the Happening heroes’ train is ready to leave, is the same actor who again in Unbreakable has a railway job: the engineer chiding Elijah for having entered the locomotive – and this is not a professional actor, but in fact Shyamalan’s lawyer Marc H. Glick
Signs and The Happening are closely related, in a milder form of how Unbreakable can be regarded as a re-imagining of The Sixth Sense. A considerable part of this lies in the plot, with a sudden invisible enemy causing humankind to panic, both featuring rural locations and to a certain extent a similar quirky humour that Shyamalan first introduced in Signs. (This will be further discussed in the third article.)
Also, Craig Lines points out in this article: “It’s a sister piece to Shyamalan’s own Signs, in which everything happened for a reason. Even the most trivial event tied together at the end of Signs to demonstrate the workings of an omnipotent greater force. If Signs was an overtly religious film stating without doubt that there is indeed a God, The Happening is the opposite; a spiritual plea for help – a desperate crisis of faith.”
Houses are important in both films. In a key scene in The Happening the characters arrive at a house whose inhabitants have barricaded themselves, and shoot at passing strangers, desperate from fear of the epidemic. This situation plays as a reversal of the basic set-up of Signs and contains a range of echoes:
- in Signs the family barricade themselves in the house while aliens try to break in – the situation in the key scene of The Happening is reversed: the protagonists are now outside, not only wanting to get access to the barricaded house, but the youngsters try to break in (they kick at the door like the Signs aliens were hammering at it; and in a related scene during the climax the Crazy Lady is outside hammering her head on the wall of her house)
- in another reversal, it is the beings inside the house who are unseen, their shadows glimpsed through the shuttered windows like the aliens outside were glimpsed in Signs
- the aliens in Signs have come to plunder Earth, but in The Happening the humans are the plunderers of the planet, against whom Earth itself rises in revolt
- after the alien on the roof in Signs has run away, the seat of a swing is seen moving as an indication that the alien just passed – in the key scene there is a cut-away to an empty seat swinging
Other echoes (with actions of Signs mentioned first):
- the abundance of glasses of water in Signs returns in milder form in the Crazy Lady’s glass of lemon drink
- time and again the camera lingers on the cornfield, its very presence an embodiment of the alien threat – like vegetation is seen as threatening in The Happening (and also in Lady in the Water, where, like among the cornstalks in Signs, the camera is “hiding” in the grass, observing events from the possible vantage point of the threatening entity; also the scrunt, a monster that fills the role of the aliens of Signs, hides in the lawn and rises up from it)
- the rural environment of Signs is becoming evident in The Happening as the family flee the city, ending up at the isolated countryside house
- when the aliens start their onslaught, Graham says, “It’s happening” – this points towards the name given to the mysterious events in the later film
- facing the possible end of the world, the silly girl at the pharmacy needs to clear her conscience to the hero – like the Happening hero’s kooky wife has to confess to him before she dies that she has secretly dated another man
- the high-pitched squeal from an unseen source in the opening of Signs returns in the high-pitched screams from “nowhere” in the prologue and epilogue of The Happening, and in all cases characters are alarmed by it
- while driving off to the city the Signs family turn off the radio talking about the corn circles; this is echoed in the fugitives turning off the car radio discussing possible reasons for the suicide epidemic (before they reach the dead bodies in the road) – in both cases it is probably to spare the children
- there is a track-in on the TV with the news story about corn circles; this device returns in The Happening with the location of suicide outbreaks marked by big round dots
- the many mobiles in Signs is echoed in the dog bell outside the Crazy Lady’s house
- the Brazilian video tape can be linked to the (much more explicit) mauling of a man by zoo animals, viewed on people’s cellphones – both are horrific but like Merrill in Signs, people still cannot help watching them:
- the oppressive mood and quarrel at the family dinner table is reflected in the Crazy Lady’s strange and even violent behaviour at the supper table in The Happening
- the dramatic camera movement along the table, revealing the baby monitor going off in the foreground, is replicated in milder form during the same supper scene
- Merrill wants to be comforted by his older brother – the characters of The Happening take a similar make-believe comfort in numbers (It is noteworthy that numbers are a sometime Shyamalan motif)
- Graham distracts the two children (especially Morgan) from the danger of the situation by telling them the stories of their births – this is echoed by how Elliot will distract Jess from the danger by telling her about how his mood ring works
- when Graham tells Bo how she smiled as a newborn, she cannot help smiling – like Jess in the same scene cannot help smiling when Elliot insists that she will:
- when watching the newscast about the beginning invasion, Morgan says, “everything people have written about in science books is going to change”, which is immediately echoed by the TV reporter, “everything they wrote in science books is about to change” – in The Happening a pupil in Elliot’s class suggests that the mystery of the vanishing honeybees is “an act of nature and we’ll never fully understand it,” and near the ending, the agitated scientist on TV uses exactly the same phrase about the suicide epidemic
- Signs ends with the hero, having returned to priesthood, hearing happy laughter and faint voices in the background – in The Happening this is reflected in the laughter and voices that the hero hears inside the Crazy Lady’s house; also here the sounds are made by his family (through the underground pipe from the springhouse) and there is a religious connection too, since the Crazy Lady seems a fanatically devoted believer (the second time it happens comes just after the Crazy Lady has been praying, “the lord is my shepherd”)
- Ivy’s trek through the woods surrounded by danger from the monsters has some similarity with the heroes of The Happening being forced out into rural areas with danger lurking everywhere; also the danger is unseen in both cases: Ivy is blind and the people of The Happening are attacked by an invisible toxin released from unseen sources (the general threat to the villagers, hiding within their pocket civilisation, from the seldom more than glimpsed monsters residing in the forest, also has similarities with the invisible threat from plants and trees)
- In both films characters suffer a panic attack captured in similar compositions. (This makes it the sixth Shyamalan film in a row with a panic attack.)
- characters have often withdrawn from the world in Shyamalan but the connection between these two films is unusually strong: the community of The Village and the Crazy Lady are all living in houses hidden away in the woods and are deliberately living in the past; the Crazy Lady lives without electricity in an old house, but unlike the villagers, without a community around her she seems to have gone mad
- one of the Crazy Lady’s lines, “ain’t no time two people staring at each other, standing still, love in both their eyes, at the same time, equal”, is reminiscent of the sometimes convoluted sentences used by the late 17th Century community in The Village
- the Crazy Lady’s bedroom is full of religious items seen nowhere else in the house, so the 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
- in the early classroom scene Elliot’s line, “you must have a respectful awe for the laws of nature”, forms an echo with The Village, where its leader says: “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.” – and in the climax, Elliot’s action, putting himself in mortal danger just to be with his wife, is driven by an act of unselfish love (at least on a metaphorical level, further discussed here, this act of love could have been so powerful that it 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)
- Elliot owns a mood ring that is supposedly changing colour to reflect the emotions of its bearer, a distant relation to the idea in The Village that Ivy is able to “see the colour” of certain persons
- a newspaper parallel of murder and disaster: The Happening often indicates that the natural disaster in the film is the planet’s revenge on humanity for “bad behaviour”, and Shyamalan is as so often interested in a violent backdrop, like the newspaper of the head guard in The Village, together with a radio, is announcing murder and war (Killadelphia is a slang name for Philadelphia due to the city’s high murder rate – a real-life reason for the director’s obsession with violence?)
- although The Happening is rather conventionally shot for a Shyamalan film, a key situation of its climax reflects the frontal/profile motif of The Village
- wind is very important in both works, in The Village often in connection with breathing and discussed here, but in the later film this natural actitivity of the world has become a threat
- while the score of The Village was built around Hilary Hahn‘s violin, in The Happening the cello is prominent, played by Maya Beiser
- chairs, especially rocking chairs, was a central motif in The Village and returns in milder form in the Crazy Lady’s rocking chair, given extra weight by being associated with her first appearance
To Lady in the Water:
- in milder form, vegetation in Lady in the Water too is connected to danger, see here
- like the characters in Lady in the Water are constantly interpreting signs to understand their situation, Elliot is continuously collecting clues to try to figure out the nature of the disaster
- the nightmarish atmosphere of parts of The Happening, especially the opening scene, forms an amusing dark counterpoint to the bedtime story central to Lady in the Water, its general tone is also a nice contrast to the mostly sweet-natured Lady in the Water, and there is something childlike about the maritial squabbles between the immature heroes of the later film
- a news reporter in The Happening is named Jeannie Ran, sharing the last name of the Indian-American couple Vick and Anna Ran in the former film
Like the first article did with the third act, there have been many kind words here too for the often-ridiculed The Happening. Some criticism has been creeping in here and there, however. There will be more when the third and concluding article shall grapple with the film’s negative aspects.