LADY IN THE WATER
Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
This one was saddled with a ton of baggage right out of the gate. I would say 'poor M. Night Shamalyan', but I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. After a dizzyingly successful career at crafting Twilight Zone-ish supernatural thrillers, he suddenly misfired spectacularly with The Village. While the film was a genuinely well-written character piece, it made the mistake of omitting the supernatural element, something that pissed off numerous fans (myself included) who had been promised a frightening tale of woodland monsters by the ubiquitous media campaign. Shamalyan was known for his storytelling twists, and for once the ultimate twist was a joke on the audience - that there were no supernatural entities in the Village.
Even without that misstep, Night was already treading on dangerous turf. Although audiences initially loved having the carpet pulled out from under them with The Sixth Sense, Shamalyan's reputation at crafting brilliant twists became both his trademark and his bane. Now people expected him to one-up his own work. And when your storytelling modus operandi is to consistently craft films that are three steps ahead of the audience, it's really only a matter of time before they start to resent it and turn on you. There was a sense that the 'Shamalyan Twist' was already starting to grow tiresome by the time of The Village's release. His naff scriptwriting choices (not to mention his self-indulgent Sci-Fi Channel pseudo biography) slammed the last nail in the coffin.
For all of its failures, The Village still managed to make a little coin at the box office, but when you have Blockbusters like Signs under your belt, anything less than astonishing will seem like a disaster to Hollywood suits. Unsurprisingly, Disney quickly bailed on Night after failing to connect with his newest script, a 'fairy tale for adults' about a mermaid-esque character from another world. Granted, the studio said they'd still give him the cash to go out and 'prove them wrong', but Night seemed loath to make a film for a group of people who all hated it with a passion.
And so his tearful departure ensued, only for him to find a new home with Warner Brothers. After a difficult time wooing Sideways star Paul Giamatti into the fold, he finally got to make his personal fantasy a reality. Sadly, he never got to prove the folks at Disney wrong, since Lady in the Water failed to find it's sea legs during a busy and unforgiving summer season. Not to mention the negative press. Once the film was unveiled, the critics struck with a vengeance.
One gets a sense that a third of the venom was actually a delayed reaction to The Village, and had little to do with the current film. The second portion of ill intent, however, seems to stem from a widespread ruffling of critical feathers at Shamalyan's decision to make one of his characters a film critic. Not only that, but the critic Harry Farber is a boorish, antisocial cad (wonderfully portrayed with deadpan precision by Bob Balaban) who thinks he has everything figured out. He eventually learns that he is dead wrong. Accent on the dead. The reaction was almost akin to the fervor over Ice-T's song Cop Killer, but with a cinematic twist. Apparently, killing anybody in a film is fine, as long as it's not a film critic. Perhaps Shamalyan was working out anger from reactions to his previous film, but isn't that his prerogative as an artist?
Brushing aside the controversies and hurt feelings, Lady in the Water is a gorgeous film that stands alongside Unbreakable as one of his very best. Giamatti stars as Cleveland Heep, a stuttering superintendent at a Pennsylvania apartment complex (that feels more like a Floridian hotel in execution). Shamalyan's ambitious script tries to balance terror, humour and a childlike sense of wonder. Miraculously, he pulls it off without a hitch. After establishing the wild and woolly inhabitants of the high-rise (including the outrageous body builder who only works out one side of his body!), Heep encounters a strange, naked woman in the oddly shaped pool outside of his bungalow. The Village's Bryce Dallas Howard returns to Night's fold as Story, a creature called a Narf from another world.
Heep soon realizes that the talkative young Korean girl (Cindy Cheung) who lives in the building holds a convenient body of knowledge regarding Story's existence. This move initially riled the cynical critic in me who bristles at such things, but I soon came to the realization that it wasn't sloppy storytelling on Night's part. In fact, it was an unadulterated, pure form of storytelling that riskily took chances with its simplicity. There are mild twists at work in the film, but they don't necessarily force the viewer to reevaluate everything they've seen. This time we just realize that both we and the characters may have been coming at certain conclusions the wrong way.
The funny parts are genuinely funny. The scary moments (mostly inolving sprinklers and a very imaginatively realized grass-covered wolf creature called a Scrunt) are genuinely frightening. And instead of griping about how the residents of the building all seem to accept and want to help the creature in their midst with no questions asked (grumpy critic notwithstanding), I found it to be remarkably refreshing. In this regard, he nailed the feeling of a fairy tale for grown ups right on the head.
The cinematography by Hong Kong lensing virtuoso Christopher Doyle (Hero, just about every Wong Kar Wai film) is sublime, and he deftly toes the line before his images become underexposed. The final image of the film is a stunner that sears itself into your brain for hours after the fact. As always, Shamalyan is a master of the film frame, and knows just what to reveal and what to keep hidden. In one early encounter with Story, Heep enters his house to hear her suddenly reveal that she knows about certain painful moments of his past. Of course we jump to the conclusion that as a supernatural creature, Story must be tapping into Heep's mind to ferret out this information. Then, with an amazingly simple yet powerful trick, Shamalyan pulls the camera back just enough to reveal that Story has been holding a book in her hands the entire time. Heep's diary.
Heep's troubles are actually an amalgam of previous Night characters, since the film focuses both on his grief (Signs) and his need to find a sense of purpose (Unbreakable). The need to find a place in life spreads to the surrounding characters, as the Korean girl's lore-laden mother informs Heep that the Narf can't be saved by one person alone. Night himself plays one of the participants (an important writer), a move that added fuel to the fire for the naysayers convinced that he had finally lost his marbles.
The silliest complaints (the final third of the critics' outpouring of bile) were that the mythology of the tale was impenetrably dense - this in the wake of truly dense adaptations of the fantasy worlds of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. (Actually, if you really want a dense mythology rife with impossible-to-pronounce names, read Clive Barker's Imajica.) Shamalyan's work is amazingly efficient in comparison, but one after another my colleagues bemoaned the impossible combination of connections and creatures found in this film. So let's have at it, shall we?
There are basically three elements to Shamalyan's story that have funny sounding names. The aforementioned Scrunt, the Narf herself, and other entities called the Tartutic that don't arrive until the third act (and like the Scrunt they're a wonderfully inventive creation). Three things, people! Am I to believe that the folks who regularly claim they can unravel the densest of plots with ease were suddenly mentally crippled by a total of five syllables?!Shamalyan's whimsies are not hard to comprehend. At all. What is hard to comprehend is how this immensely personal, gob-smackingly gorgeous film never found the audience it so rightly deserved.