The Happening, Part II: Goners with the wind

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.

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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.

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Suicides – a series of short films

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.

I: The park – eeriness and estrangement

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:

In the background we can see two young women on a bench, the protagonists of this mini-story. (We will return to the dog later.)
The opening shot ends with this view, radiating harmony through its everyday setting, symmetrical composition and soothing greenery. The branches can be seen, however, as ominously stretching themselves towards the humans. Also, over this view and the next few shots a lone cello, as if a street musician is present, plays a mournful tune.
Branches swaying in the wind in a shot whose composition will carry sinister meaning upon revisits: as if vegetation has infiltrated cities like a fifth column, civilisation is dwarfed and overwhelmed by nature.
Enter the two women, played by Kristen Connolly (with the long hair) and Alison Folland. Suddenly the one to the right, whose name will be revealed as Claire, says: “I forgot where I am.” (It is unclear whether this is an early sign of confusion or they have just sat down to read.) The long-haired girl retorts in a slightly mischievous tone: “You’re at the place where the killers meet to decide what to do with the crippled girl.” Claire says with a knowing laughter: “Oh, that’s right. That’s right.” Unless they have spoken about this before, the tone of the response and the laugh indicate that this might be a joke about Claire’s habit of reading violent literature, which connects to the film’s underlying theme of mankind’s own behaviour of violence.
The short conversation is enveloped in this 18-second hypnotic track-in that, like several shots in the suicide scenes, can be taken as a point-of-view shot from nature itself, in this case the greenery in the previous shot, slowly homing in on its victims. They also sit lined up, perhaps meaningfully, with the tree behind them. The shot ends with the long-haired girl being startled by a far-away high-pitched scream: “Did you hear that?”
A point-of-view shot of a studiously normal scene.

Absolutely nothing to see here either. Nevertheless she says: “That’s funny.”
As the cello dies out and wind starts whistling and rustling her hair, she continues: “That’s weird. Those people look like they’re clawing at themselves. Is that blood?” In a creepy instance of less-is-more Shyamalan refuses to let us see what she is describing, and it comes across as even creepier since the last shot did not show anything abnormal either.
A new point-of-view shot, again brilliantly showing nothing of what she claims to see. An observant viewer can see something slightly odd, however: at least three people are moving backwards, but except for the closest one, in extreme long shot this is extraordinarily subtle. Walking backwards is in itself not particularly alarming, especially in this panorama of idyll.
This is one of the fastest cut in all of Shyamalan, less than one second, inserted to make her head movement in the next shot appear even more forceful and unsettling…
…also made more acute by another, perfectly timed far-away scream. Her long hair has probably been important in the casting, billowing with the movement in an explosion of anxiety…
…she suddenly discovers that everyone is standing still, and the guy in blue (and another person) is haltingly walking backwards…
…another hectic change of perspective, again accompanied by a sound, now her own gasp…
…a dog has caught the ball but the owner is not present in this world any more…
…again, the sudden switch: “Claire, are you seeing this?”
Unknown to her, all around her the world has ceased to exist, for her friend seems to have long ago fallen prey to the same condition: no answer despite repeated prodding…
…finally, she reacts, memorably paraphrasing the earlier sentence: “What page was I on?” It is now crystallised into a metaphor of existential confusion (and this must-read article interprets it as depression.) Her eyes shift position step by step, as if heavy gear is involved, and her strangely angular, slightly brutal nose adds a fine touch to the atmosphere of singularity…
“Page.”

…in striking contrast to her friend’s intense movements before, inexorably slowly she reaches for her hairpin, now accompanied by deep, slowly pulsating cello chords. In the next shot the human automaton still has that heartbreakingly yearning, helpless, frozen gaze:
…the world hangs in the balance…
…and then, without a moment’s hesitation, with a sickening “thwack” she plunges the hairpin into her throat, twisting it around for good measure, her face reduced to a gash of a mouth. Equally sickening is the fact that the heroine, so alert up to now and our eyes and ears, suddenly is wholly unconcerned, sinking into a stupor, perfectly accentuated by being out of focus. The main disaster theme of the score plays up.

II: The builders – dramatic impact

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.

Almost half an hour later. Note the looming tree, leaves rustling, near the building site.
In a 20-second shot fusing several narrative elements we see an elevator coming down – this descending movement might be foreshadowing – while the camera dips down behind some builders, then moves in a nearly 180-degree arc to position itself to look the same way as the guy in the white helmet.
Played by Cornell Womack, he is the hero of this short. The quip on the park bench is expanded into a lovingly told joke, whose punchline is the size of someone’s penis. The co-existence of humour and tragedy in this scene can be said to be emblematic of the wider film, successful or not, and to sharply demarcate the end of normality.
A hand-held point-of-view shot, often out of focus, rushing towards a man who has fallen.
He is frantically calling for medical help. This type of low-angle composition is not unusual for such a situation, allowing the drama of the body to coincide with a frontal look at the others. Here it also has the meaningful side effect of looking up into the sky…
…stunned, the builders are trying to comprehend the incredible coincidence of another fallen workmate…
In a film much less stylised and visually adventurous than usual, Shyamalan’s trademark overhead shots have here a more functional purpose (in some precision-work framing, the third body is hurtling down just nipping at the edge of the image).
In an almost 180-degree pan we are locked into the hero’s POV as one body falls into the yellow container and another one is ending up in the street. Note that the Shyamalan storytelling is classical and calm, with no attempt to whip up artificial excitement by fast cutting and camera trickery.

As the dramatic music shifts into thunderous doomsday mode, in an unforgettable eight-second shot that seems to last an eternity, a number of entranced people are walking the plank, sailing to their death, motionless and without a sound. These two scenes are Shyamalan’s only ones in New York and it is impossible not to draw the line to people jumping to their death during 9/11. (The doomsday music is very similar to the Crazy Lady suicide in the climax.)
“God in heaven.”

III: Another park – process-oriented analysis of an epidemic

In a leisurely 22-second shot, after having followed the lady with the dog – she is fingering her keys, obviously on the way to her car – the camera sweeps up into the trees, branches swaying in a hefty breeze.
Meanwhile just outside, a policeman notices the wind…
…prompting him to address a taxi driver. The studiously superficial, flatly delivered interaction is strangely enjoyable: “Chilly, isn’t it today, Sal?”;”Maybe a little.” The tree is a meaningful backdrop for the policeman considering he is soon the first to go.
Not far away, another set of pedestrians have stopped dead in their tracks. (The guy with the guitar might be a nod to The Green Effect, see here.)
Back to the dog again, tugging impatiently at its leash…
…but its owner drops both leash and keys. Kicking off the scene’s last, 47-second shot, it runs away, overjoyed, but instead of continuing chasing it, the camera stays with the policeman…
…suddenly a gunshot rings, he falls to the ground, blood sickeningly coming out of his brow in spurts, while in a nice touch, his upended hat rolls back and forth in front of him. The camera pulls away before falling to rest, foregrounding the gun. The taxi driver comes out, following the white line as if (successfully) performing a sobriety test. As he takes the gun and continues walking, the camera starts pulling away again…
…and after this man too has fallen, the camera falls to rest on the gun again…
…and another gunshot is heard. Blood from the taxi driver trickles into the frame, like an infection. The camera’s compulsive behaviour following the gun reflects the no-choice situation for the people here, and the action we see will be repeated over and over again, for example by the people conveniently placed in the left upper corner.

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.

Top: Dogs in Central Park and Rittenhouse Park. Bottom: the dog in the second epilogue and another dog in Central Park.

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.

IV: The zoo – mediated violence

While at the diner in Filbert, many of the refugees watch a gruesome viral video of a man committing suicide at the Philadelphia Zoo by letting himself be torn apart by lions. The Iphone came just the year before the film and greatly helped spread videos virally, a human parallel of sorts to the suicide epidemic. There is also a feeling that the refugees are watching the clip with some fascination mixed into the repulsion.

V: Princeton – intensely personal

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.)

The hero’s best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) arrives in Princeton to look for his wife. The opening shot emphasises their precarious situation inside the tiny box surrounded by looming nature…
…which is also ominously reflected in the windshield (loading one of cinema’s most ubiquitous type of shots with a very specific, new meaning)…
…suddenly Julian becomes aware of something and we cut to the other side where a situation is revealed by the slow-moving car…
…and BOOM! One of the film’s most striking images, with the red T-shirts adding to the impact, the overwhelming trees triumphantly showing off their victims. Fittingly, this is landscapers, in a dominating position towards nature, who have perished, having hanged themselves with their own equipment, which has been turned against them. A bystander too has eagerly embraced the suicidal opportunity.
An outstanding feature of this scene is the convincing hysteria displayed by a teenage girl, played by Shayna Levine. Julian tries to calm her by posing a mathematical riddle: “How much would you have if I said I would pay you a penny on the first day and then two pennies on the second, and then four pennies on the third day and I just kept doubling it and I did this for a month?”
She can’t believe her ears that someone would want to talk about such matters now, but she starts guessing, proposing ridiculously low amounts…
…ironically, she calms down (but goes on proffering low amounts) in the exact moment that Julian notices whistling wind and a big tear in the roof letting in toxin-infected air. (The shot looking down on him of him again could be said to be from nature and the wind’s point-of-view.) He says: “You’d have over $10 million at the end of the month. You want to hear another one?” This is a comment on escalating ecological problems (and her low answers indicative of ordinary people’s poor understanding of the issues), human population growth, and the mushrooming suicide epidemic itself, as well as human greed and the futility of human endeavour in the face of death. (Is his now deadly calm, and the girl’s too, a sign that the toxin already has began to affect them?)
In a sharp break with the intimacy and high emotion so far, the rest of the scene will offer a dispassionate view, as we see the car stop, echoing how people have frozen during earlier attacks. (After the cut there is a continuity error: the environment on the far side of the car does not match.)
Again, a suicide scene is concluded with a long take, a 49-second shot as the car suddenly speeds up, crashing into a tree – it is only fitting that an object of nature is doing the killing – and two bodies fly out through the windshield…
…as the camera sneaks closer as if to inspect the situation, a lone figure stiffly appears…
…the Julian we came to know sits like an unformed being, without dignity and self-awareness in dehumanising long shot…
…and with studious indifference, he starts slitting his wrist with a random piece of glass, while the camera, representing nature, regards him with no emotion whatsoever. The red of the car, the machine that humans controlled, has left the frame entirely leaving him even more lone and pathetic. (Is the green human shape in the background meant to lend some irony?)

VI: The Road – after the fact

After cutting back to the heroes – there is an eerie continuation here since this too is a car scene – they discover some figures in the road, and through binoculars Elliot confirms they are human beings. Note the engulfment of vegetation.

VII: The phone – helpless bystanders

We have now reached the really rocky part of The Happening. A mother is on the phone with her daughter in Princeton and has to listen to her committing suicide. Shyamalan attempts to give the scene some distinction by shooting it as a long take (at 87 seconds the film’s longest) with the camera moving around, peering in between various people as if we were among the spectators, supposedly creating intense identification. The scene comes across as quite artificial, forced and static, however, and has little staying power on repeated viewings – unlike the earlier suicide scenes, which continue to exert fascination, through a combination of formal rigour, fine acting and intensity.
The heroine of this suicide short is adequately acted by Kerry O’Malley though.

VIII: The field – problem-solving bystanders

Previously, the heroes of the suicide shorts have been untouched by the silliness infecting other parts of the film. (The nervous, talkative Julian, who was allowed to flee those parts, is low on the quirk factor.) But here Private Auster – a poorly conceived character annoyingly acted by Jeremy Strong – and the “hot dog couple” (here represented by Frank Collison) have been thoroughly undermined already, so it is hard to feel much when their time is up. Some resonance is intended, however, comparing the gun with the warm clasping of hands in the face of imminent death. On the whole, the sequence out in the field is the film’s low point in most aspects…
…and comes across as grating and rambling rather than suspenseful, as on the other side of a small slope the hero tries to figure out how they can save themselves, as the gunshots of an unseen mass suicide inexorably ring out. It is possibly meant to be humorous that he at this fraught moment shall be disturbed by a nagging wife.

IX: The mower – careful observation

This succeeds better: when the protagonists exit the model home, they observe a man calmly starting an industrial lawn mover and letting himself be run over. An instrument used to wreak havoc on nature is cutting down a human being instead, on a carpet of green. (All the suicide scenes in The Happening also existed in the original script, The Green Effect, but this one has been transposed from a location not appearing in the film.)

X: The barricaded house – between threatening trees and hateful humans

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).

(Only key moments of the scene will be discussed.) During a lengthy establishing shot, where the camera nicely pulls back to include one of the heroes’ teenage fellow travellers in the frame, we start to hear rhythmic creaking…
…suddenly he feels the urge to check it out, realising that Jess, Julian’s eight-year-old daughter who is travelling with them, is using a swing. As the camera follows Elliot’s gaze up the trunk, another type of creaking joins in, as if the tree is murmuring a beginning protest against this human exploitation.
This is the film’s second overhead shot, very ominous, as if the tree is looking down on them (and we can clearly see the branch, still creaking, moving in step with the swing, suggesting strain). Even though foreboding, the calm of this tableau forms a very nice, quiet-before-the storm tension-building contrast to the discussion on the porch, where the boys want to break into the house to get food.
Again the ominous high angle. This comes just after the others have discovered that there are people hiding inside the house. Alma interrupts the swing session. (We also have to remember that nature has started to attack smaller and smaller groups – what happens when our people meet up with the ones inside the house? Or has nature already decided that critical mass has already been reached, unbeknownst to the heroes?)
The people inside do not trust the newcomers. Elliot says: “just listen to our voices – we’re perfectly normal”, but seems to fall prey to his near-pathological joking, since he undermines his statement by singing this Doobie Brothers tune, in an absolutely abnormal toneless, monotonous and light voice. This incident is really baffling on first viewing, but retains a certain charm, and the exchange of looks between Jess and Alma helps us understand it.
Now for a truly inspired moment: the film holds its breath together with the soulful Ashlyn Sanchez – gently emphasised by a discreet push-in on her face – while the swing is moving back and forth, subtly reminding us of the danger from the trees, its movement also a metaphor for a situation balancing on a knife’s edge. This will tip over into violence, however:
The boys refuse to leave the house, starting to make threats and strike at doors and windows. Then Josh is shot in a shockingly brutal moment – the scene has been without a score so far, but here atonal music washes over the images, to nightmarish, suffocating effect – and while a transfixed Jared is looking at the body a gun pipe sticks out:
…and when the shot is fired, a few frames of white are inserted, creating the illusion of a flash of an explosion. This writer is uncertain how rare a trick this is, but it anyway recalls Shyamalan inspirator Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), which contains red frames as a gun is shot into the camera.
As the music turns “normal”, dramatic and mournful, the low-angle composition with the dead body from the builders suicide scene is repeated, in a moment that is the characters’ lowest point in the film. Another good idea: the optimist Elliot speaks to Jared as if he is still alive: “We’re gonna get out of this nightmare.”
Another great Sanchez shot (assisted by the drama of fish-eye lensing) – she is not that central to the film but absolutely perfect at everything she is asked to do.
One cannot say the same for Wahlberg and Deschanel: this is the scene’s false note, with his crying woefully inadequate.
Jess runs away in hysteria and panic, the blinding sun illustrating her blanked-out mind. (This makes it the sixth Shyamalan film in a row with a panic attack.)
Back to that second killing: the deleted scenes contain a different version, explicitly showing Jared being shot in the head, a sight so gruesome it was dropped from the film. The reader shall be spared the sight, so (to the right) you see only the start. This is probably the reason for those white frames. The editor has taken a similar shot and insert those frames to mimic the actual gunshot.

Motifs

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.

First an interesting tidbit from the deleted scenes. The film was supposed to open with this shot, from the street outside the heroes’ house. The camera is pulled back so that vegetation is slowly overwhelming the background structure (the tallest skyscraper at Liberty Place), a sign of human technology and civilisation. This is the same symbolism used in the film’s last shot and what ended up as its second shot, so the bookending was intended to be even more perfect. (This street will return in the opening shot of the first epilogue.)

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.

With this approach, the biology pupils are surrounded by sinister omens.
Like in several shots in the third act, vegetation may be foregrounded in a vaguely threatening manner…
…and here, at the start of the ill-conceived sequence out in the field, the heavy foregrounded grass is supposed to be a treacherous sea of danger.
The greenhouse is also a prison for plants…
…who will soon overwhelm mankind.
One of the most sense-of-wonder-inducing greenery shots in the film.
Another favourite shot, the green is overwhelming, and after the car has passed at high speed, the camera lingers, to show the plants in the foreground shaking in the wake of the car. This is just a case of mild harassment, however, compared to the next example…
…from just before, when the car turns around to escape the danger area of the dead bodies. This little scene is one of the film’s most expressive situations: observe the plants in the foreground…
…the car just runs them over…
…brutally mashing them to pulp spinning the wheels…
…before it tears away, leaving the plants to eat dust.
Later, out in the fields, we arrive at one of the shortcomings of the film. These are two cut-aways, before the wave of suicide starts, meant to be ominous but just coming across as inert. They are also supposed to convey specific meaning: the trees are communicating with the plants, in order to organise the toxin attack. But to this viewer it simply looked like normal vegetation, until remembering the nursery owner: “Trees can communicate with bushes, bushes with grass and everything in between.” This is not that damaging, however: many times in movies the viewer will just grasp the gist of what is happening and later viewings may reveal the specificity.
When the first shot sounds they turn to look. The other group is supposed to be behind a small slope lined with those trees, and when our people are uncertain what to do as shots continue to ring out, the same trees are shown again, but nearer, to indicate heightened danger: the trees loom larger and we are visually in closer proximity to the massacre on the other side.
As our people begin to run, geographical consistency is maintained: it is from the same trees the wind starts to blow, as if coming from the other side after having infected the people there. Just before, we saw the trees being shaken by a strong wind, and now the wind is “transferred” to the grass, the camera tilting down to follow the gust of wind coming closer.

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.

Visual approach

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.)

This one-two punch never fails to fascinate, however, first the end point of the teachers meeting resulting in closing down the school, and then the enigmatic anatomy shot with a camera creep-in, the shots poetically suggesting the dwarfing and vulnerability of man faced with the mysterious threat.
The train journey is connected with a lot of camera movement. As the heroes’ train is leaving, the camera is zooming in on the city they escape, the arena for the next suicides. Note also the green gaining prominence, revealed by the train and enlarged by the zoom.
Upon return to the protagonists, with a gunshot from the park dramatically merging with the sound of the train horn, not only is the camera swooping down…
…but in the next two shots inside, the forward movement is continued, although much calmer, closing in on Alma and Elliot (who are travelling in separate carriages).
When Elliot leaves to find Alma, the act is given extra urgency by the camera moving forwards to meet him.
It is nothing extraordinary about this, but it is satisfying to have the car over Julian’s shoulder in all his shots, burning with intensity and danger, as he bids farewell to the heroes in Filbert before leaving for Princeton to find his wife.
As he runs off, Alma and Jess step into the frame, holding hands, causing the image to think back on Julian’s “don’t take my daughter’s hand unless you mean it” just before.
Julian’s receding figure is echoed in the heroes’ diminishing size as the car drives away.
While Shyamalan employs his favourite “jittery slow-motion” – probably done like Hitchcock in Rear Window by double-printing each frame and then apply slow-motion – this moment, fittingly considering his fate, ends in a darkening of the image. (The lusciously melancholy music also helps this moment to stand out.)
This 68-second shot, the film’s fourth longest take, attempts to elegantly tie together the meeting of four different refugee parties at this crossroads from the vantage point of the heroes’ car, but this is a fairly standard manoeuvre when someone wants to lift the film with “cinematic” staging.
This is a bit interesting, however: while the camera is closing in on the TV screen, the news programme itself is zooming in on the map, causing a “double forward movement”. Also, the zoom-in on the dots is way too powerful for this to be realistic TV footage, so this is clearly enhanced for cinematic impact. The forward movement continues after the dissolve, as the camera is gently closing in on the trees.

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.

References to earlier Shyamalan films

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)

To Unbreakable:

  • 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

To Signs:

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.”

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The Happening: a reversal of Signs.

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
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“Why are you eyeing my lemon drink?”

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)

    Top: Signs. Bottom: Lady in the Water.
  • 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”)

To The Village:

  • 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

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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.

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