You'd expect the end of the world to be no day in the park, but in M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening, a day in the park is where the end begins. One otherwise peaceful summer morning, New Yorkers strolling in Central Park come to a halt in unison, then begin killing themselves by any means at hand. At a high-rise construction site a few blocks over, it's raining bodies as workers step off girders into space. And all the while, the city is so quiet you can hear the gentle breeze in the trees. That breeze carries a neurotoxin, and what or who put it there (terrorists?) is a question raised periodically as the film unfolds. But the question that really matters is how and whether anybody in the Middle Atlantic states is going to stay alive. The Happening is Shyamalan's best film since The Sixth Sense, partly because he avoids the kind of egregious misjudgment that derailed The Village and Lady in the Water, but mostly because the whole thing has been structured and imagined to keep faith with the point of view of regular, unheroic folks confronted with a mammoth crisis. Focal characters are a Philadelphia high-school science teacher (Mark Wahlberg, excellent), his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and math-teacher colleague (John Leguizamo), and the latter?s little girl (Ashlyn Sanchez). Instinct says get out of the cities and move west; most of the film takes place in the delicately picturesque Pennsylvania countryside, with menace hovering somewhere in the haze. There are no special effects (apart from a wind machine and some breakaway glass), but the movie manages to be deeply unsettling in the matter-of-factness of its storytelling. Especially effective is its feel for what we might call the surrealism of banality. One warning sign that someone has been infected by the neurotoxin is irrational or erratic speech and behavior, yet Shyamalan has a genius for dialogue that sounds normal and everyday as it's spoken, yet flies apart grenade-like a second later as its logic (or illogic) sinks in. Then there's Deschanel's eye-rolling dodginess about the messages some guy has been leaving on her cellphone. Or the fellow (Frank Collis) who addresses his greenhouse plants as though they were his children--has a stray toxic zephyr wafted his way, or is this just his idea of normal? --Richard T. Jameson
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