It’s hard to go into Lady In the Water blindly. After The Village, in 2006 the viewing public was already weary of M. Night Shyamalan slipping. That’s why 15 year old me had originally avoided this at all costs. I’ve never been much for fantasy and the marketing didn’t grab my attention. If it wasn’t doing horror then it wasn’t worth my time. As I went into this movie today, I wanted to give it the fair shot I had refused it before. It’s difficult to go in neutral after the continued fall of Shyamalan after this but I’m reminded of the merit of Signs and Sixth Sense and thought maybe it was unfairly judged. Is Lady In The Water any good or only slightly better than a career that would make The Last Airbender?
The film opens with animated cave like drawings telling of how man used to connected with nature and the spirit world. Once man broke away and created war and destruction, it was predicted that the creatures of the water would return and help man in bringing about peace. This is an interesting prologue to open with because it incorrectly sets up the expectations of what is to come and also prepare you for how much explanation this movie is going to throw at you. With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan’s pitch is what if a fairy tale was placed into the real world. How would people react and how would a fantastical scenario play out. It’s an intriguing concept but instead of choosing a tale that already exists or one that’s easy to follow, he chose to dive into a whole new mythology that is explained in chunks throughout the film and never simply. It doesn’t seem like a plot would be this convoluted as apartment complex super Cleveland (Paul Giamatti) finds water nymph Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the communal pool. From what should be a plot of this girl needs to go home, new elements of who she is, why she’s there, who can helper, who can hurt her, are continuously being introduced and never in a naturalistic manner. It’s a fantasy that is more telling than showing as even during action sequences of fighting off the wolf beast known as “Scrunt”, Story needs to describe in detail every action as it is happening.
While the plot and mythology is over explained, the real strength and core of this film is the residents of The Cove apartment building. We follow Cleveland into each apartment meeting a spectrum of people from the large and boisterous latino family to quirky jock lifting weights in the yard to the stoners rambling in their bohemian living room. It is a diverse and realistic setting that is exciting to explore. I almost rather see a dramady of a super’s life as he interacts with the most interesting of tenants. The best use of the movie’s time is getting to know each character and I like that in the end they are all utilized proof of little wasted screen time. The character choices are bold even if they’re a little silly like a father (Jeffrey Wright) seeing messages in the crossword puzzle or his son (Noah Gray-Cabey) who finds those same cryptic messages in cereal boxes. The singular annoyance out of them is Bob Balaban playing a film critic who moves into the building. It’s quite petty as Shyamalan is making an obvious jab to all those who spoke negatively about The Village or any of his past films. It’s the only character that gets killed in the film and it’s purely for his smugness. It’s a more childish choice than Roland Emmerich naming two characters Ebert and Gene, at least they were funny and had less malicious thought put into tearing them down. There are multiple instances in which the critic calls out tropes that the film uses, attempting to appear intelligent as if being self aware makes trope usage ok. It’s as if Shyamalan is asking for a pat on the back because he went to film school.
The other character let down is the actual lady in the water, Story. I first want to point out that the term the movie gives for her water nymph species is a “Narf” which is a phrase I can’t disassociate from Pinky and the Brain hence making it ridiculous to hear anyone talk about in a serious tone. Secondly, she is the most victim-y character as she lacks any agency, only appearing at Cleveland’s doorstep needing to be saved. This is where the prologue throws me off because that lead me to believe this mystical prophecy person was coming to earth to play an active role in helping others, not being a weak, incapable woman who needs constant protection. I enjoyed the film more when she wasn’t around because I got to experience the community of the complex rather than watching a someone hide in shower for an entire run time.
The best way to describe Lady in The Water is it’s as if a 2nd grader is explaining to his parents a story he just made up. Every detail of how everything works must explained, in case the newly invented words confused them and it’s all strung with a series of “and thens”. That’s also how the filmmaking feels. There’s some gorgeous shots from cinematographer Christopher Doyle but I don’t know what it’s saying. There’s these head on subjective angles straight from a Jonathan Demme picture or multiple shots that are views from a below the waist angle but I don’t know what their purpose is. Then there’s more puzzling moments as in the middle of dialogue there will be a cut to an obligatory establishing shot of the building in case we forget where we were. I appreciate that Shyamalan is trying to do some out of the box filmmaking and storytelling wise, it just doesn’t all land. I appreciate there’s no shoehorned twists even though some of the plot developments could be considered twist adjacent, I’m more bother that they had flimsy reasoning. This isn’t even close to be Shyamalan’s worst work which doesn’t sound like high praise but there are at least aspects here I can applaud. I don’t think this film deserves to be so quickly thrown under the bus but I realize I didn’t give it the strongest case as a defense. If fantasy or character actors is your jam then maybe check it out.