Because something is happening here / But you don't know what it is
Bob Dylan tauntingly sang those lyrics in the 1965 song, "Ballad of a Thin Man," but they could also be said to represent M. Night Shyamalan's attitude toward the audience in his latest suspense-thriller, The Happening. Something is happening in the film, that much we know (and the line is reiterated half a dozen times in case we forget); but what exactly is happening remains a mostly unanswered mystery, even by film's end. And this turns out to be both surprisingly compelling and endlessly frustrating.
It's definitely a scary thing—to not have answers. And for Shyamalan, it's a bold step. Up till now his films have all been explainable, even if they've been unbelievable. His "gotcha!" endings have tended to reframe his films in more rational constructs—making sense of the various webs of uncertainty, spooks, and phantasmagorias that provide the tension and thrill of the first two acts. At the end of The Sixth Sense, the audience reinterprets the meaning of the film after the big Bruce-Willis-is-dead reveal ("oh it all makes sense now"), and the universe is nice and tidy and understood. Same goes for Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village.
But in The Happening, there is no such tidy denouement. The film becomes less and less comprehensible as it goes along, and the audience—expecting a patented M. Night ending—is cruelly left with no answers, explanation, or narrative closure.
Of course, there are implied answers, and they have to do with some sort of "attack of an angry environment" freak-eco-phenomenon. Here's the setup: people in the U.S. northeast (starting in New York's Central Park) begin to kill themselves en masse, apparently because some self-preservation neuron isn't firing correctly within their brains. The film opens with a bang (literally), with some truly disturbing scenes of people strolling off of high-rise buildings to their deaths. The images bring back horrible 9/11 memories, as does the generally surreal "is this really happening?" mood of the disaster film. Indeed, the first response is predictable: this must be some malicious bio/chemical terrorist attack (only in America would suicides be blamed on terrorists). However, this theory is soon discounted, and, well, for most of the rest of the film we don't really have a clue why this "event" is happening the way that it is. Is nature somehow rebelling against the humans who have so long abused it?
Our protagonist, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), works hard for the film's ninety minutes to figure out the cataclysm's cause. As he and his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and their friend's young daughter (Ashlyn Sanchez) try to outrun and survive the increasingly dire crisis, Elliot stares at the trees and grasses and wonders what they are plotting next. He's a high school science teacher with a perplexingly ambivalent perspective on science. On one hand he is a hyper-rationalist, thinking in numbers and theorems and racking his brain for scientific answers. But on the other hand he is a supernaturalist/postmodernist, telling his students that "science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it'll be just a theory. We will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding."