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July 25, 2006 > Lady in the Water

Lady in the Water

by Jeremy Inman

It's fair to say that the quality and popularity of the films of M. Night Shyamalan have seen a steady decline since the release of The Sixth Sense in 1999. For a guy who was potentially poised to be the next Hitchcock, some would say that Shyamalan dropped the ball with the three films between The Sixth Sense and his most recent Lady in the Water. Some might even say that Shyamalan has been trying too hard to recreate the effect of the twist at the end of Sixth Sense (if you haven't seen it yet, I won't ruin it for you, but stop reading this and go watch it. What, have you been living under a rock?) The result is a string of movies that grew more and more predictable and subsequently unexciting.

For the length of three films, Shyamalan beat viewers over the head with the same formula: introduce seemingly unimportant plot elements early on in the film, go through a series of creepy and semi-revealing situations from the point of view of one character, and then reveal at the end of the film that the seemingly unimportant elements are actually very important to the story via one major "twist." Viewers started watching Shyamalan films expecting a twist equivalent to the Sixth Sense, likely due to the fact that each subsequent film followed a similar formula. They spend the length of the film trying to guess the twist only to be sorely disappointed by the actual result.

This isn't saying that Shyamalan is a bad filmmaker, just that his formula is a little tired. Unbreakable, even though fans claim to dislike the film, was a highly innovative approach to the American superhero mythos; an appropriately creepy film that more than appealed to the comic book nerd in me. Signs was by no stretch a cookie cutter alien film aside from minor inconsistencies in the plot (a supposedly "advanced" alien race attempts to colonize a planet on which the most abundant resource is lethal to them). It was, again, a highly innovative, cleanly shot and well-acted take on a well-known genre. The Village, on the other hand, was a bit less reachable for audiences. The twist seemed relatively tacked on, and the plot was quite a stretch, but it was well shot and well-acted. Still, it followed the same formula that all three of these films have in common: unimportant element, creepiness and a twist revealing the importance of the aforementioned unimportance.

Rather than directly redeploying this formula for his most recent film, Lady in the Water, Shyamalan instead cleverly uses it as a source to drive a slightly more unconventional plot. Based on a fairy tale Shyamalan himself made up for his own kids, Lady in the Water asserts that there exists a form of nymph-like muses called Narfs from the Blue World who periodically surface to inspire great deeds in man. However, rules govern the actions of the Narfs and their presence on Earth. The rules play out like a conventional fairy tale plot until Shyamalan's clever retooled use of his favorite formula.

The tenants of an apartment complex, led by the apartment's stuttering manager Cleveland Heep (the always-awesome Paul Giamatti), must work together to insure that key elements of a plot involving a Narf named Story (coincidence?) are carried out. Cleveland must rally the tenants and help them fill certain roles in the plot, all the while protecting Story from an evil wolf-like creature called a scrunt who seeks to block her return to the depths of the Blue World.

Generally in sci-fi/fantasy films, and even in horror, the plot of the film at some point reveals to the audience, usually early on, the rules by which that particular fictitious universe operates. For instance, in Star Wars, we understand that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, space travel is the most common mode of transportation and powerful wizards called Jedi can shoot lightening out their fingertips or convince you that these aren't the droids you're looking for. Or, in the Lord of the Rings, viewers understand that on Middle Earth there are elves, hobbits, trolls, and an assortment of talking trees and magic rings.

We accept these universal rules as they are set forth for us, and are able to suspend disbelief and enjoy. Shyamalan films, however, never leave the realm of the real. They always purport to be happening in the here and now. This can create a gritty, frightening sense of reality a la Sixth Sense, or a jarring and awkward juxtaposition that continually reminds viewers that they are watching a film.

To an extent, Lady in the Water does both. There are times when you're completely enveloped in the story, and times when the film becomes almost obnoxiously self aware, like the fact that one of the tenants is an elderly Asian woman who just happens to know the entire fairy tale regarding the Narfs and the rules by which they operate. Shyamalan even wrote in an annoying film critic who constantly points out plot elements before they occur. At times this is funny, but at other times it detracts from the film.

If you were to ask Shyamalan, he'd probably tell you that the most important element of his films is the story (just look at the name of his main character) but the truth is that he is very much a performance director. His films are always an occurrence of strange or otherworldly goings on as seen from the perspective of one compelling character. Often, viewers are denied a clear look at what's actually going on in the film and instead limited to what the character knows or understands.

His compositions are always very close to his leads; much of the film is shot directly behind or in front of Cleveland Heep. The takes are relatively long and still, usually relying on the reactions of the actor on screen to convey important elements, letting the actor tell the story, rather than physical unfolding of the plot. Each film is very much a character piece, and this is where Shyamalan's real strength as a director is evident.

Paul Giamatti is an amazing performer in his own right, but the way Shyamalan uses him to tell this story is something to be studied. Probably as a result of his directing his own scripts, Shyamalan's characters are always immensely compelling and believable: Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, Sam Jackson and again Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, Mel Gibson in Signs, and Bryce Dallas Howard in the Village - who also plays the delicate and lovely Story in Lady in the Water.

Lady in the Water turned out to be a fairly enjoyable film. Shyamalan's still got gas in his tank but he just needs to distance himself from a formula that we may have seen one too many times in his work. Lady in the Water isn't as good as the Sixth Sense, nor does it try to be, but it's definitely a step in the right direction coming off of The Village. With any luck, Lady in the Water was his tongue-in-cheek farewell to that tried and true formula we've all come to expect, and Mr. Shyamalan will once again wow us with his unique vision, crisp writing, and expert character building in the years to come.

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