By Jeff Reichert
Lady in the Water
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, U.S., Warner Brothers
The outsized critical gangbang which met the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water bespeaks of a community of writers gripped by the worst form of pile-on groupthink imaginable. Whether or not Lady deserves the freshly cast cement shoes (more on that later), most reviews gleefully tapped into some sort of collective urge to really beat up a filmmaker who, according to most accounts, got too popular and too egotistical too quickly even as his ability to craft compelling narrative waned over the course of his five most well-known features. This type of reaction isn’t new—it’s merely the flipside of the same mechanism that foists tripe like Crash and A Beautiful Mind into pole position come awards season. It’d be more bearable if only critics could at least own up to their own malicious intent, or at least acknowledge the tendency, like Scott Foundas who admits in the LA Weekly: “Lady in the Water isn’t awful, mind you, but it is a failure, and one that carries itself with such chest-puffing pomposity that many will take pleasure in shooting it down for sport.” This before he indulges in a bit of lightly snarky big-game hunting himself, though he does correctly name The Village as Shyamalan’s best film.
By now you’re probably expecting a convoluted defense of a great work from a misunderstood filmmaker. That I’ll fight to bravely unravel the hidden threads in Shyamalan’s tale of narfs and scrunts and bring Lady crashing back into contemporary sociopolitical relevance. That I’m going to assert that my call is the right one, and prove all the naysayers wrong. Well, to do so would be an act of arrogance on par with say, putting a film critic to a grisly death at the end of one’s movie in a blind, silly act of auto-critique; or, gleefully taking part in a massive, nationwide takedown effort, for no other reason than you felt that the object of the assault just really deserved it, and well, hey, everyone else was doing it. Some would argue that we at REVERSE SHOT did something similar two years ago when we named The Village one of our best films of the year, but Lady in the Water is no Village. So I’m forced to admit (somewhat reluctantly), that for my money, nothing written so far cuts to the heart of this truly strange film as succinctly and successfully as Manohla Dargis’s simple: “Lady in the Water is one of the more watchable films of the summer. A folly, true, but watchable.” I prefer “hooey” to “folly,” but you get the idea.
If writers had spent as much time untangling the various strands of Lady in the Water that link it inextricably with Shyamalan’s others film as they did snickering at the introduced vocabulary and story contrivances of his fantasy, response might have been a hair more measured. There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy evinced by laughter in the face of an everyday housing development encroached upon by mythical “narfs” and “scrunts” when more than nine hours of cinema over three years covering the exploits of “hobbits,” “ents,” and “orcs” fighting in an invented universe called “Middle Earth” for a gold ring was greeted by the same folks with all the reverence due a visit from the Pope. Aren’t all fantasies, at base, contrived? The very fact that Lady’s mythical world intrudes on a rather grimly realistic landscape represents the main stumbling point for most, but shouldn’t we be even more intrigued by this kind of attempt? Inventing a new set of rules and histories in a vacuum from the ground up is difficult and admirable, but somehow I’m more appreciative of efforts to bring our mundane reality crashing into the fantastic and mediating between the two. In this way, perhaps the proper lineage for Lady in the Water might not by Shyamalan’s other films, but something similarly hokey and flawed like Wolfgang Peterson’s The Neverending Story.
But this is, through and through, a Shyamalan film. Characters harbor secret pain, hidden obsessions, and must come to grips with the possibilities of their own self-actualization. As has often been noted, all of his major films thus far are marked by that sense of wonder and awe in the face of the ineffable that characterizes much of Spielberg’s oeuvre, but less mentioned is how this wonder is often put in the service of Deepak Chopra–esque personal fulfillment. (What was The Sixth Sense if not an impassioned plea for child-parent communication and overcoming one’s fears, wrapped in a twisty ghost story?) There is a certain New Age-iness that creeps into Shyamalan’s films, and Lady could be accused of slipping overboard given its introductory animated history (buoyed by another terrific James Newton Howard score) where man loses the path due to avarice and an inability to listen, but that would be to ignore that in many ways this is his darkest film yet. War is ever-present on radios and television screens, and the claustrophobic (yet somehow expansive—a skillful fantasy touch) environs of the Cove lend the proceedings the feel of a sequestered bunker filled with inhabitants riding out some invisible but always-felt storm. Central is Giamatti’s superintendent Cleveland Heep, who willfully dives into belief in Story’s (Bryce Dallas Howard - the narf) mission, and manages to coerce the majority of the building’s residents into doing the same (almost too easily, which, for me, is another terrific touch), all in order to distract himself from his own dark past. As this is Shyamalan, Heep will have his epiphany, and, telegraphed as it may be, credit is due in that it still feels earned.
Shyamalan remains a terrific camera director; working with Christopher Doyle has only allowed his idiosyncratic camera placement in long takes more room to stake out space against other, more jarring maneuvers. The collaboration has afforded what is perhaps Shyamalan’s best single shot yet: a view from under the water towards the sky that captures Story’s rescue by the Great Eatlon (a big eagle, for the uninitiated). If Shyamalan is guilty of anything here it’s not in believing his own hype. It’s in believing that his control over narrative is perhaps more elastic then it may really be. If that boils down for some to the same thing, so be it. Lady in the Water’s greatest failure is not in the imagining of its world, which is compelling, but lies in the manner employed to parcel out information containing the rules that bind it. Forcing the major points of the legend that drives his narrative to come secondhand via the overly caricatured translation act of Cindy Cheung is nearly disastrous. Giving the recipient, Giamatti the least convincing stutter in cinematic history may be worse. For a filmmaker whose “twist endings” rely on carefully parsing information, the detail work here is shoddy, and the first half of the film is almost irrevocably crippled. As Lady moves along, and we (if we’re game) and the Cove’s residents are made aware of more pieces of the legend, momentum builds—but most less Shyamalan-inclined viewers than I might have asked for the check long before.
And, as you’ve probably heard, Shyamalan casts himself in the role of a writer whose book containing “thoughts on ideas, leaders, and stuff” will literally change the world. If I’d been at that infamous and overly documented Disney meeting, I’d have advised him to sub himself in for the Bob Balaban film-critic character—at least it wouldn’t have been so easy for the critical mass to toss the baby out with the bathwater. But that kind of reserve is probably not in Shyamalan’s nature, and though we laud a stubborn unwillingness to compromise in indie auteurs (“I wouldn’t let them muck with my vision, man!”), somehow the same in a young studio filmmakers is portrayed as intransigence. Is Lady in the Water a good film? Probably not. If it were, most of the discourse surrounding it wouldn’t exist. Though for lovers and collectors of oddities and cinematic curios, it’s nearly essential viewing. Dysfunctional as it may be, I’ll take it over the bulk of what I’ve already seen this summer.