REVIEW: Lady in the Water [2006]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: July 21st, 2006 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): M. Night Shyamalan
Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan

“Man has forgotten how to listen”

M. Night Shyamalan has really matured as a filmmaker the past few years. After an auspicious beginning with the much-adored Sixth Sense, he followed with a slow, poorly paced Unbreakable and the not quite sure what it wanted to be Signs. At this point I pretty much wrote him off, except for the brilliance in marketing that seems to make his trailers must sees. I grudgingly went to The Village in 2004 and to my surprise loved it. Everything that didn’t work in his previous two films was corrected almost as though he needed those slips to hone his timing and writing. The Village was a masterpiece in my opinion, a touching love story; not only between the young lovers, but also the band of old friends who chose a lifestyle to free their children from the harsh reality of the real world. Which Shyamalan would we get with the new Lady in the Water? I was on the fence a bit due to the lack of any redeeming critical reviews, but the knowledge of how he left Disney for their asking him to compromise his vision made me respect him as an auteur and want to see the finished product. Lady in the Water is a modern fable, gorgeously told and acted, bringing back a communal sense of survival among seemingly disparate apartment complex tenants. These people are brought together under duress and truly show what humanity is and how love and compassion really can conquer all.

Cleveland Heap is a lost soul going through the motions of his mundane existence as the superintendent of The Cove. His activities, leading him through the complex, allow us a glimpse into each tenant’s quirks at the film’s start. Paul Giamatti is wonderful as usually here, playing Heap as a sad sack with an intelligence suppressed underneath. His loss of breath stutters are consistent and never feel forced. Giamatti truly inhabits the role. The horrors of his past weigh heavily on his character and form the basis for his actions, in trusting a pretty young lady and the myth she tells in order to glean some sort of protection. This eponymous lady, named Story, is portrayed by the radiant Bryce Dallas Howard. She once again shows her immense talent with an understated performance, exuding emotion in an almost emotionless, stone-faced delivery.

Story is a Narf looking for the one human she has been sent to unlock. As the stories go, Narfs have been in contact with humanity for centuries as muses to help release new thoughts and ideas onto the world. Society, however, has made man a ruthless and hungry race, so protective of their property that they have shut all emotion out. They no longer hear the sea-nymphs and have all at once forgotten their existence. The vessel Story seeks will one day be very influential in the continuing of our species, and she needs to help him see clearly and allow his knowledge to flow out for future generations to experience and cause change in the society that is slowly draining freedom and identity from the masses.

Every character in this bedtime story has a purpose. An unknown force has drawn them all to The Cove to eventually help this Narf on her journey. Their powers are latent, only to be unearthed by a series of tragic events leading up to the film’s climax. These characters need to put aside their differences and their cultures to unite as one in a greater cause. Jeffery Wright, on of my favorite actors working today, takes a nice realistic turn as Mr. Dury, expert crossword puzzle-solver. His intellect has bred a uniquely gifted child as well as an open-mindedness needed in Story’s quest. Bob Balaban is great as the harsh, self-absorbed new tenant who plays a major role in the plot although unknowingly. His character brings to mind Wes Craven’s unique idea, while poorly executed, for Scream where each person understands the rules to the story they are in and try to take comfort in them before discovering reality doesn’t have a set system of rules at all. The best of these supporters has to be M. Night himself, though. While he has put himself in each of his movies, not counting his two first films that no one seems to know about, although he might be in those too, here he is a lead role. He handles himself very competently and, while definitely an amateur, shows some real feeling in the progression his character takes. A lot of responsibility is laid on his shoulders and that Christ-like conflict of whether to live up to the future set before him or to sit back and let life plummet to destruction is etched on his face throughout.

Shyamalan has come into his own as a screenwriter and director. His stories no longer have spells of long drama that just becomes boring. The pacing is carefully orchestrated and the suspense is perfectly timed. Like he did in Signs, leaving the alien to our imagination for as long as possible, he shrouds the evil Scrants, enemies of the Narfs in the Blue World, in darkness until absolutely necessary. The CGI work on these creatures is amazing, and realistic, I’m sure in most part to M. Night’s decision to show them at night only. His camerawork is inventive as well, carefully hiding events that would look fake otherwise. A perfect example is at our finale when he shoots a scene from under the ripples of the pool water, meticulously distorting events above water, showing us the action, but without the necessary fake animation work bringing us out of the story. He keeps everything realistic, helping the audience stay immersed in the story without Hollywood moments to remind us we are watching a movie. This ability, in his last two films, has vaulted him onto my list of must-see directors. You feel for the characters and stand by them as they try to accomplish the impossible.

[1] Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep and Bryce Dallas Howard as Story star in Warner Bros’ Lady in the Water
[2] (Left to right) JARED HARRIS as Goatee Smoker, MARY BETH HURT as Mrs. Bell, GRANT MONOHON as Emaciated Smoker, ETHAN COHN as Glasses Smoker, NOAH GRAY-CABEY as Joey Dury, JOHN BOYD as One-Eyebrow Smoker, JEFFREY WRIGHT as Mr. Dury, PAUL GIAMATTI as Cleveland Heep and JOSEPH D. REITMAN as Long Haired Smoker in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ “Lady In The Water,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. The film also stars Bryce Dallas Howard. Photo by Frank Masi

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