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 ...1
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