An Act of Faith
Lady in the Water / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | July 21, 2006 | Comments ()
I feel bad for M. Night Shyamalan. Ever since his third feature, The Sixth Sense, made him a somewhat unpronounceable household name back in the glory days of 1999, he’s been fighting an uphill battle to write and direct the kinds of films he wants to make while dealing with mounting negative feedback from fans and critics alike. His follow-up, Unbreakable, was overlooked largely because it wandered from the previous film’s outright suspense and supernatural storytelling in favor of a seemingly unrelated tale of a real-life, low-level superhero. But both films shared Shyamalan’s interest in the frailty and power of human faith, and of how our lives can be changed irrevocably when we begin to believe in things we cannot see. This theme of faith lost and recovered was front and center in Signs, which also further underscored Shyamalan’s willingness to cut logical corners in the service of driving home an emotional point (seriously, aliens who can’t survive getting wet decide to invade a planet that’s 75% water?). But something weird was happening as the film series progressed, and by the time Shyamalan released The Village in 2004, it was clear that he didn’t want to just write, direct, and produce these films; he wanted to star in them as well, or at least cast himself in some small but integral role in the ensemble. Chalk it up to a generational thing. Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino are known for co-starring their own films. But Smith’s nonspeaking roles in his movies is much less grating than watching Tarantino relentlessly mug for the camera while trying to maintain a fraction of the charisma and energy of the other actors in his scenes. Just watching him interface with Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction is uncomfortable, and it makes Jackson look even cooler than usual, if such a thing is possible. Shyamalan’s appearances on film have tended more toward the Tarantinian end of the spectrum, at least inasmuch as he’s a much better director than actor. In his latest film, Lady in the Water, Shyamalan does arguably his best acting work so far, though that’s not saying too much. But his onscreen presence has a way of splitting your attention between the story that’s unfolding it and the man that’s supposed to be unfolding it, and turns what could have been a great film into an interesting but solipsistic one. For Shyamalan, it’s not enough to tell us he believes; he has to be in front of the camera, showing it. If only he’d had faith enough to let the story stand on its own.
From the start, Lady in the Water sets itself apart as the most linear and straightforward of Shyamalan’s stories, with a narrator somberly intoning the history and eventual falling out of ancient man and the people of the water, or the Blue World. The narrator hits all the classics: a prophecy, the coming of chosen representatives from the people in the water, an awakening for all mankind, etc. Based on a bedtime story that Shyamalan used to tell his kids, the film unspools with a quiet awe for the power of myth. Set in Shyamalan’s native Philadelphia, Lady in the Water revolves around the sad, quiet life of Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), manager at an apartment complex known as the Cove. He speaks with a stutter; he lives in a small guesthouse near the pool, on the other side of the courtyard from the main building; and all his tenants like him well enough. As his name suggests, he is stunningly ordinary, a self-effacing mix of shy mumbling and sweaty shirts, played with subtle skill and grace by Giamatti. He sees someone swimming in the pool one night and, after a fruitless search, slips and hits his head, tumbling into the water as he passes out. He awakens back in his house, on his bed, staring at a young woman (Bryce Dallas Howard) who’s sitting on his couch. She says her name is Story, and Cleveland eventually pieces together that she’s not from around here (it helps that she walks around naked and says she comes from the Blue World). And from there, well, things get interesting pretty quickly.
Story mutters a few nonsense words in her sleep, which starts Cleveland asking questions of Young-Soon (Cindy Cheung) and her mother, who tell Cleveland the story of a sea nymph sent from the world of water to meet a human and change that person’s life, and in doing so the lives of everyone. That person is known as the Vessel, and it’s the meeting of the nymph and the Vessel that will cause a moral awakening in the hearts and souls of mankind. Complicating matters are giant wolves that are sent to stop the nymph, as well as some kind of über-evil tree-dwelling bark-monkeys who enforce the otherworldly laws that keep things running smoothly. And, in one of the film’s two wildly indulgent plot points, the Vessel turns out to be a tenant named Vick, played by Shyamalan himself. Shyamalan’s co-starring in his films has never before played such a vital role in the story. Here he literally plays the man whose writings will, and pardon my dramatic italics, revitalize mankind and save the country from moral bankruptcy and realign the universe. I’m not upset that the Vessel exists; it’s that Shyamalan is playing the role. It’s the equivalent of hitting that one sour note that turns a bright major chord into an embarrassing gaff, and it damages the film’s ability to tell a contained story.
On its own, Shyamalan’s casting as the man whose words and thoughts will redeem the world would seem like an ego run amuck. But it’s the film’s other indulgent development that really lets you know Night is working through some petty personal demons onscreen: One of the Cove’s tenants and the film’s only human antagonist is Barry Farber (Bob Balaban), a film critic who espouses distaste for film, who laments that there is no originality left in the world, and whose counsel at one point leads Cleveland astray and places Story at great risk. The character’s name is a lazy bastardization of Manny Farber, an American film critic whose name Shyamalan apparently considers to be absent from most viewers’ minds and therefore fair game to set up as a representation of all critics everywhere. Nevermind that Shyamalan’s film, though original and enjoyable, still relies on a standard economy of characterization and structure that has served American filmmakers for decades. From the beginning, too, it’s obvious that Farber doesn’t look likely to survive the story; I guess it would have been too big of Shyamalan to just get over whatever’s bugging him and move on. No, here we’re treated to one of the country’s premiere auteurs attacking a film critic onscreen for no other reason than that some haven’t enjoyed his previous films. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
But back to that straightforward plot: Once Story meets Vick, she makes ready to return home, telling Cleveland that the giant eagle from the fairy tale will be coming for her, and that it’s up to Cleveland to help her avoid the wolves and survive until she can be taken home. That’s it. Along the way, Cleveland unites a group of tenants who possess unknown powers and have been placed in the Cove to help protect Story, and it’s in the final act that Shyamalan is able to stumble into moments of redemption and sadness that, if not counteract the story’s inherent egocentrism, at least balance it with an honest, searching humanity. He’s assisted in this by the schlubby brilliance of Giamatti, who seems almost to crumple in moments of tragedy without ever losing hope; his tear-filled soliloquy toward the film’s climax is beautiful, and absolutely heartbreaking. Howard, with her high cheekbones and soft-voiced poise, is the perfect choice for Story. (And it’s something beyond kismet that her father, Ron Howard, made his first big mark as a director with 1984’s Splash.)
Lady in the Water isn’t a great film, but it certainly is a good one, a mixed bag of myth and hope and love and a commitment to acts of faith in the face of a world that folds its arms and refuses to believe. If it’s true that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from the movies we see and value as a community, then Shyamalan is doing his part to craft original, honest stories that reflect the skills and ideas of a truly gifted filmmaker. The biggest complaints lobbied against him aren’t that he makes bad movies but that the movies themselves didn’t measure up to some arbitrary ideal that’s been planted in the viewer’s mind before they even enter the theater. And to watch movies that way is to live wearing blinders. Shyamalan’s films are striving for greatness, even — especially — if it’s on his own terms.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.