It is sad to watch a filmmaker who has peaked so early. M. Night Shyamalan is such an example. “The Sixth Sense”, his first film, is a hard act to follow. Great performances, an engaging story, great technical work and an incredible ‘aha’ moment combine to create an incredible experience. Shyamalan followed with “Unbreakable”, an exploration of the myth of superheroes. While not as great as “Sixth”, it is an overlooked film. I consider it to be one of my favorite films, but I am in the minority. “Signs” was good, but a lot of people were turned off by the sight of the aliens. “The Village” was a mess, a huge disappointment. Now, we have “Lady in the Water”. It falls somewhere between “The Village” and “Signs”; not as bad as “The Village” or as good as “Signs”.
Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), the superintendent of a large apartment complex called The Cove, suspects a tenant might be swimming in the pool at night. Startled out of his sleep, he spots the figure but ends up falling into the pool. Waking up a bit later, he finds he has been rescued by Story (Bryce Dallas Howard, “The Village”) who he later learns is a Sea Nymph sent to our world on a special mission. He also learns creatures from her world, Scrats, dog/ wolf like creatures that can dissolve into and hide in the grass, have followed her back to prevent the mission. Soon, Cleveland realizes he will need some help, so he recruits a number of the apartment building tenants.
Shyamalan begins the film with a brief introduction of the legend, using primitive cave drawings to illustrate the narrator’s words. Then, we meet Cleveland as he shows a new tenant, Mr. Farber (Bob Balaban) around the building. As they make their way to the new tenant’s apartment, they meet a number of the ‘colorful’ tenants living at The Cove. They meet Mr. Dury (Jeffrey Wright, “Syriana”) and his son (Noah Gary-Cabey). Dury ‘likes words’ and spends his time working crossword puzzles. Reggie (Freddy Rodriguez, “Poseidon”) is doing an experiment and working out only one half of his body, the right side. Vick Ran (Shyamalan), a writer experiencing writer’s block, is working on a new book about politics and current affairs, that “no one will like to read”, while he lives with his sister, Anna (Sarita Choudhury). Mr. Leeds (Bill Irwin), the oldest tenant in the building, sits silently in front of his television all day, watching coverage of wars and carnage. And Young Soon (Cindy Cheung) walks around scantily clad while trying to do her college homework. Young Soon’s mother reluctantly provides her daughter with a version of the fable, which Young Soon passes on to the building superintendent. Each of these people will play a part in helping Cleveland return Story safely to her world. But will they play a part in her mission?
There are some significant problems with “Lady”, detracting from the overall experience and making this one of Shyamalan’s less successful films. But it’s still better than “The Village”.
Let’s start with the good. Paul Giamatti is, as always, very good. Cleveland is a meek, unassuming man who exerts authority only when necessary. Giamatti’s slumped shoulders and stooped posture help him make this character real. Yet, when he sees a bunch of pot heads smoking in their apartment, he quickly becomes an authority figure and orders them to stop smoking. As soon as he leaves, his stutter returns and he becomes a man most would never give a second glance. He goes about his job in a measured way, completing it with pride because it is all he has, but also trying hard to hide the loathing.
As soon as Story enters his life, he is incredulous about her existence, but quickly comes to believe her. The Scrats make a quick appearance, providing him with all the evidence he needs. Then, he finds he has something new to care about, to live for. He devotes his life to helping her, to understanding the rules of her world, and to helping her return home.
At one point, late in the film, Farber (Bob Balaban), a movie and media critic, finds himself cornered by a Scrat and begins describing how most movies would handle such a situation. This is an amusing method for the filmmaker to take a playful dig at the industry he works in.
Also, Shyamalan is good at placing his camera in places to help build a little suspense. As the Scrats track various people, he frequently places the camera at their eye level, giving us their vantage point, as we stalk the victims sharing the experience with these strange creatures. Shyamalan also reveals many things just after they have happened. For instance, we might see a swinging door at the end of an empty hallway. What went through that door? Often our imagination is more effective than an image.
But there are also problems with the three most prevalent elements of the film.
Story is a difficult character to make fully believable; a good portion of the film depicts her sleeping or curled in a fetal position in someone else’s arms. Bryce Dallas Howard spends a lot of time staring blankly ahead and speaking in very general terms. It would be difficult for most actresses to make this character interesting and Howard simply doesn’t have enough experience to pull it off.
It is interesting to see such a diverse group of actors in the same film, but few go beyond their initial introduction. Because there are so many, it is difficult to make each of them seem real, to give them more than one human quality. Because of this, many seem like stereotypes. There is an elderly woman who is always telling people about her husband’s bowel movements, you might say she is ‘kvetching’ about them. There is another middle aged woman who cares for stray cats, nursing them to health while she talks about healing properties. She comes off as an aging hippie.
Finally, because so much emphasis is placed on the legend of the Sea Nymph and Story’s journey, it becomes problematic when it doesn’t have a strong tie to the rest of the story. From almost the moment she arrives, Cleveland is searching for ways to get her safely back home. She never even seems to have an opportunity to fulfill her journey. I realize that some of the effects of her presence are meant to be subtle, but for this to ‘payoff’, we need to see the effects of this. The effects are very subtle as well. Cleveland doesn’t stutter around her. Vick finishes his book. But what is the big cosmic thing she was sent to fix? Her presence is supposed to elicit change on an epic scale. Instead, she makes vague references to some of the characters which will presumably lead to this change. But we feel cheated because we are taking this journey with these characters and we don’t see the final impact.
There are a couple of vague references to ‘current events’ and ‘the war’, our current way of life. As soon as these pop up, you might expect them to play a significant part in Story’s journey; you might expect Shyamalan to make some sort of statement. The connection starts out vague and remains so throughout the film. The idea is never fully integrated leaving another loose end for us to ponder.
“Lady in the Water” is similar to other Shyamalan films in one regard. Shyamalan likes to build suspense. Suspense does not require blood or gore and Shyamalan knows this. His films are generally scary because of the atmosphere he evokes in our minds. They aren’t scary because of excessive amounts of blood or gore. This is a lesson many filmmakers would benefit from.
“Lady in the Water” is not a very good film. But there are a couple of things making it worthy of a DVD rental.