What's 'happening' with Betty Buckley

Posted on 19 Jun 2008 at 3:15pm

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When I asked my hubbie what he liked and didn’t like about “The Happening,” writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s latest supernatural thriller, he mentioned one thing that bothered him: Late in the film, when a small girl sitting at a dinner table reaches for a cookie, the home’s  owner, Mrs. Jones, slaps her on the hand and tells her not to take what’s not hers without permission. This irked him. “I’d have slapped her right back — no one has a right to do that to someone else’s child,” he said.

I couldn’t disagree more — my own grandmother would have done the same to me. In my mind, Mrs. Jones hadn’t crossed the line; the girl’s parents had failed to do their job in teaching her manners.

We went back and forth on this, but one thing we agreed on: Approve or not, when Betty Buckley (who plays Mrs. Jones) goes psycho on your ass, you feel like backing off.

I should know. I was sitting three feet from her when she did it to me. Details after the jump.

 If you’ve seen “The Happening,” you know it’s one of those brooding, ominous films that is as tense when nothing’s happened as it is when the violence is shown, but some of the most disturbing images are of Buckley, playing a hermit unaware of what is “happening” to the rest of the civilized world. Her intensity is creepy, even if, as with the cookie, her actions are justified — at least in that old-fashioned, speak-only-when-spoken-to, yes-ma’am world no one seems to care about anymore. 

Which is not to say Mrs. Jones is a likeable character. In fact, her behavior becomes so disturbing that when Buckley, during our interview, goes into character — locking her jaw defiantly, fixing her gaze on me, her lips thin and hard — it’s difficult not to feel intimidated, even a little frightened.

Whether Buckley is the best thing about the film may be a question of taste, but she’s certainly among the most interesting of characters. And one Buckley herself sort of understands. Sort of.

“You have to be a character’s advocate if you decide to play her,” she says over a cup of coffee, her face returned to a more maternal softness. They’re treating her like she’s weird, so sheacts weird.” But Mrs. Jones is more complex than simply being a curmudgeon.

“She’s living off the grid, she’s moved herself away from the world — she doesn’t use electricity, she grown her own food — a subtle carbon footprint. She’s making lots of good choices,” Buckley says. But that self-sufficiency has also left her angry and mean. “What she hasn’t resolved is all the fear and  rage at humanity she has. She’s become her own destruction because she hasn’t processed that rage.”

Buckley has nothing but praise for her director, who, following the smash hit “The Sixth Sense” in 1999 has routinely disappointed his audiences with increasingly obtuse plot twists. But then again, she’s just happy to play another psycho.

We’ll run our full interview with Buckley in an upcoming print edition of Dallas Voice.

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