Is Wahlberg delivering what looks like the worst performance of anyone's career, or is he playing a character who's losing his grip on reality? Everyone's behavior is detached and weird to the point of being ridiculous. Kind of in the same way that cult members' behavior looks ridiculous right up until they all put on matching outfits and calmly commit suicide.
Or maybe it's just bad acting. Hey, I said I was going to try to be charitable here.
Regardless, rewatch with this in mind, and you get a much smarter film. From the initial public incident -- mass suicides, on camera, in the world's most famous city -- you see one terrifying explanation spread through the populace: terrorists. Deadly gas. Tapping into all of our post-9/11 anxieties.
Then, as word spreads, so does the irrational behavior. When the reality slowly makes the initial theory implausible (how and why would the terrorists get gas out in the middle of rural Pennsylvania?), the victims simply seize on a new one. It is again patently ridiculous, but again taps into their underlying anxieties, the fear that we're destroying our own planet.
Who first relays the bizarre "THE LEAVES ARE GETTING REVENGE!" theory? Just some guy who works with plants, certainly not an expert in ... whatever this is. But he sounds just smart enough that the group can latch onto the theory that justifies their fear. There are plants everywhere! No one is safe! Just as in real life, they believe the most inflammatory, implausible version of the truth on the thinnest evidence. Because at some level, they -- and we -- want to be afraid.
Even the title becomes meaningful. The Happening is such a weird, vague title for a movie (or, well, anything), but that's the joke. Nothing actually happened.
It's baffling to watch one character after another take their own life for what on the outside is no reason at all. Just as it's impossible to understand why more than 900 people spontaneously did the same at a compound in Guyana. We chuckle at the plot because nothing the characters do makes sense, and damn it, that's not how it's supposed to work in a movie. But in real life, in real crowds? Logic is as fragile as a soap bubble.
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The Themes Remain Consistent Right To The End
At the end of the film, Mark Wahlberg and his wife (played by Zooey Deschanel in the most "How did I end up here?" role of her career) survive, and why wouldn't they? They were the main characters. You wouldn't end Black Panther with T'Challa splattered all over the front of one of those underground trains, and you wouldn't end The Happening with Mark Wahlberg choking himself to death on some stale Lucky Charms or whatever.
But look at how they survive. The film ends with the two of them choosing to leave their shelter and embrace in the open air, accepting their fate ... only they're fine. The moment they stop running and hiding, the spell is lifted. They realize that the air isn't poison, and then everyone else does. Suddenly everybody is standing and looking around, like they've woken up from a trance.
This even fits in with Shyamalan's typical storytelling. It ends with the two lead characters putting their faith in their love for each other, rather than succumbing to fear. Likewise, Signs is about a former priest regaining his faith in the face of a mysterious threat, and Unbreakable is about Bruce Willis learning to put faith in his powers. But this is a horror movie, and it isn't going to get a happy ending.
The protagonists don't realize the whole episode was a hysterical shitshow, because real people never learn that lesson. They go home believing that the threat could arise again at any time. And they're right. They're just wrong about the nature of the threat.
Sure enough, the last thing we see is another Happening occurring in France, the process ready to start all over again. Because that is the most horrifying monster of all: the one that lives in our heads, the one that won't ever allow us to learn the right lessons.
Eamon Lahiri has written a bunch of stuff for a bunch of outlets that you can check out on his hastily organized portfolio. To hire him to write things for you, mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or say hi on Twitter.
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