Improving on his last two duds The Village and the dreadful aquatic nymph tale Lady In The Water writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan gets back to the kind of eerie paranoid thriller he so successfully mined in early efforts like The Sixth Sense and Signs. The results this time are mixed in this story of a mysterious environmental “happening” on the East Coast that is causing large groups of people to commit suicide. As he does in his most effective films Shyamalan focuses on a core group of people who must find a way to survive these strange events. Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) is a Philadelphia science teacher already dealing with marital problems with his attractive but rather unstable wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) now thrust into full crisis mode as he his wife a fellow math teacher Julian (John Leguizamo) and Julian’s daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) hit the road by train then car to escape the unusual plague first thought to be a terrorist attack. The group soon realizes it is more than that perhaps a forceful message from Mother Nature cued by the growing winds and rustling of tree leaves. Joined eventually by two older boys Jared (Robert Bailey Jr.) and Josh (Spencer Breslin) Elliot tries to be the voice of reason as each person begins to meet their own fates on a journey into a heartland of unexplainable terror. Unlike most contemporary horror films in which actors must battle butt-ugly creatures most of the genuine frights in this flick are left to our imagination. Here Shyamalan wants us to experience what the characters are going through the abject fear on their faces. Wahlberg is particularly good at expressing a growing feeling that events are slipping out of his control. He’s amusing in a direct encounter with a house plant he fears may now have the upper hand and in the film’s best sequence where he must convince a batty paranoid old woman (an intense Betty Buckley) to let the group stay in her remote farmhouse. Forced to utter lines like “just when you thought there couldn’t be any more evil invented ” the quirky Deschanel has her work cut out for her but is likeable enough in the end. As a math teacher Leguizamo spends much of his screen time calculating everyone’s odds for survival until his own becomes questionable. As his daughter Sanchez is appealing and handles herself well. Shyamalan is the heir apparent to Alfred Hitchcock--in his own mind at least. Hitch’s The Birds seems to be the template but that 1963 classic is light years ahead in every way. Unfortunately Shyamalan is becoming something of a one-trick pony as The Happening is basically a retread of things we’ve seen him do before. There is no question he has superior skills. He clearly gets the horror genre; he just doesn’t seem to know how to make it fresh anymore and the answer isn’t by ratcheting up the body count. Reportedly 20th Century Fox asked him deliberately to make an R rated film (his first) and its those gore-filled elements which seem superfluous here. Do we really need to see a guy commit suicide by willingly letting some zoo lions rip off his arms? It’s glaring and out of place with the subtler aspects of the director’s style. Plus the use of overbearing and obvious music cues (score is by James Newton Howard) shamelessly telegraphs whatever scares the movie and only serves to emphasize the shortcomings of M. Night’s sketchy screenplay. Still as a summertime time-waster The Happening fills the bill but as an eco-thriller with dire warnings for humankind it drowns in its own promising potential.
Based on a novel by Laura Kasischke it focuses on two 17-year-old high school girls--Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maureen (Eva Amurri)--who are completely opposite in personalities but still the best of friends. In fact "one is the virgin one is the whore " according to Diana. She does everything her demure and religious BFF with their bond going spiritually deep. One fateful day at high school changes their lives however when a student gunman goes on a shooting spree in the school. The gunman corners the two girls in the bathroom and tells them he must kill one. Jump to 15 years later the adult Diana (Uma Thurman) has a great home life: smart cute kid successful husband nice house. But it's not as it seems. It is assumed that Maureen was the one who was killed prompted by her telling the gunman she wants to be the one shot. But a last-minute plot twist puts the movie's title in a different light: The Life Before Her Eyes is more than just Diana's life. This film incorporates some elegant performances from Wood and Amurri--two veterans of the teen genre who portray their characters’ friendship with much authenticity. Amurri(Susan Sarandon's real-life daughter) especially downplays her innocence with smart nuances while Wood is coming into her own as a strong edgy actress--just not enough to save this film. Thurman tempts Oscar-type bait as the emotionally distraught Diana constantly reliving the horror of the killing spree through flashbacks. The actress’ mood is maudlin and suitably translucent for mournfulness. But Thurman's screen presence is just too large and glamorous to be believable in the melancholy role. She looks to be assuming the trance-like “look of sadness ” as though she's playing a role. Her body language is too confident to be carrying around a lifetime of hurt. Director Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) is a poor man's Julian Schnabel--a visual and ephemeral craftsman who works with colors. Blurry imbued tones of greens and yellow bring the story to life pairing with spring-time settings with shadows and light. The Life Before Her Eyes aims for a dreamlike complexity and how conscience ties to memory. The film is also about how changing a person's destiny can completely rewrite an entire history. A palette of moody camerawork from director of photography Pawel Edelman (The Pianist) creates an eternal lushness which elevates the drama. The Columbine-style shooting sequences feels outdated however. It's a contrived museum treatment such public tragedies. It’s an adventurous independent film that doesn't quite come together as intended.