M. Night Shyamalan believes in magic, and he wants us to as well.
He also has an inflated sense of himself.
This is not unreasonable, given that his first major film ‘The Sixth Sense’ launched him at the turn of the millennium as a Hollywood wunderkind, capable of making thrillers so tight they were worthy of the adjective ‘Hitchcockian’, and even seared a new phrase ‘I see dead people’ onto the cultural lexicon. He followed ‘The Sixth Sense’ with another Bruce Willis-starrer, ‘Unbreakable’ – a film that captured the minds of many a Pentecostal youth leader eager to talk about the weight of spiritual vocation, a theme underlined by his next film ‘Signs’, in which the then uncontroversial Mel Gibson (oh how times have changed) played – of all things – a Lutheran pastor in the midst of a crisis of faith. He remained the critics’ (and the audience’s) darling until 2004, with the release of his post-9/11 analogy ‘The Village’, among whose many fans are myself and only one other person I can think of. It’s clear that he loves movies, and that he wants to conjure the same feeling we all used to share as children transfixed by the happenings on-screen – Magic.
And this is what he’s trying to do with ‘Lady in the Water’, a self-styled ‘bedtime story’ about a mermaid/angel hybrid called Story who arrives in an apartment complex in 2006, to warn its residents of how far humanity has strayed from the path of good. Or at least that’s what the opening titles suggest. This notion – that there is ancient wisdom that could save us, if only we would return to the Source – has obvious Christian resonances, that echo in all of Shyamalan’s other films, but the Story in this movie either loses the point, or fails to make it clear in the midst of a somewhat incoherent narrative.
To be sure, there are visual flights of fancy (shot by Christopher Doyle – Wong Kar-Wai’s photographer of choice) that entranced me, and the central performance from Paul Giamatti proves that ‘Sideways’ was not a one-off. But it’s never clear just what Shyamalan is trying to convey through his disappointed characters, and the none-too subtle repetition of television reports of how awful the world news is. Indeed, after the first hour, when I realised that the story wasn’t really the sum of its parts, I found myself feeling bored for the first time in one of his films. There are myths, there are monsters, there are quirky characters aplenty – from a body builder committed to working out one side of his body only to a film critic who meets a sticky end (Shyamalan is clearly a man to bear a grudge)…but there is no overall sense of what the film is really about, or even who it’s for. Is it about one man’s pain, or the whole society’s fear of global terror? Is it about the spiritual vacuum in our world, does it champion or does it critique the gung ho vigilantism that could be a caricature of the Bush administration? Is it merely (and maximally, for these matters are not without merit) an attempt at creating a new fairy tale?
The reason the answers to these questions remain ambivalent is that I’m not sure Shyamalan has decided who his audience is. The film is so convoluted in places, and demands so much attention that it wouldn’t be out of place in a festival of surrealism. And in that context, it might be welcomed as an at least intelligent attempt at post-modern storytelling. But if this is the case, then Shyamalan is guilty of wanting to have his arthouse cake and eat it in a multiplex. A film that is marketed as a scary fairy tale for all the family needs to be a scary fairy tale for all the family, and not a complex narrative about guilt and loss if we’re not going to feel unnecessarily confounded.
Perhaps the key to understanding ‘Lady in the Water’ is the scene in which the film critic claims to know more about the story teller’s intentions than the story teller himself. It’s obvious, and even quite amusing to see Shyamalan take his revenge on the critical family who appeared to mass ranks against him on the release of his last film. However, this attempt at being self-referential leads him to appear ultimately egotistical in the worst sense – in the final analysis, ‘Lady in the Water’ becomes a film about how Important the director thinks his work is. He even plays a character who is told of his cultural and political significance by a divine being (a plot element that would seem less egregious had he not played the character himself). This makes the film at least interesting to those of us who care about peace, justice, and what in ‘Superman Returns’ - another film with Christian resonance released this summer - was referred to as ‘all that stuff’. But it left me only with a feeling of disappointment, confusion, and the desire to sit down and have a good conversation with the director about his worldview and motives, rather than watching the film again. It still has more imagination and ambition than ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ and every other summer blockbuster put together, and perhaps we should be grateful that with ‘Lady in the Water’, Shyamalan has finally broken free of his apparent need to have a major plot twist at the movie’s climax. Next time around, let’s hope he doesn’t forget the plot in the first place.
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