Each of M. Night Shyamalan’s studio films thus far have employed, or even exploited, genre scenarios to similar ends—to question the unknown, to collapse boundaries between well-trod fantasy tropes and untranslatable spirituality, and ultimately, to preach the importance of human connection in the face of trauma or even tragedy. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs seemed less interested, respectively, in ghosts, superheroes, and aliens, than in the intuitive human healing that their presence brought about. It’s precariously new age, and it’s certainly no surprise to hear him in interviews talk of his target audience as “the collective soul.” If The Village easily remains his greatest film thus far (and possibly the most accomplished, coherent social allegory to come out of Hollywood in this politically catastrophic decade), it’s in part because in it he purposefully bumped up against the limits of all these things: the unknown was explicitly revealed as hokum (or as William Hurt’s elder called it, “farce”), belief was betrayed, egalitarianism turned to rancid, nearly fascistic self-preservation. Yet despite The Village’s political and social cynicism, Shyamalan managed to offer a portrait of blossoming love so genuinely touching, so well performed (by Bryce Dallas Howard and Joaquin Phoenix), and given such generous narrative weight, equal to its explicitly sham horror thread, that the film left in the dust the self-help guru trappings that so many people see in his oeuvre. The Village proved that Shyamalan doesn’t mean to just work big-L love (between estranged couples, tentative lovers, family members) in as a plot expedient but as a unifying plasma, and that he’s disinterested in utilizing sci-fi and fantasy detritus without it as an adhesive.
But if Signs, with its religious coddling, and Lady in the Water, with its frazzled, bogus attempts at community building and self-reflexive storytelling, showed the biggest chinks in Shyamalan’s armor so far, exposing as they did the director’s penchant for easy narrative wrap-ups and a distressing spiritual determinism, then his latest film, the already reviled The Happening, rightfully holds the director up to the harshest scrutiny yet. Click here to read the rest of Michael Koresky’s review of The Happening.