Among its many identities, M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water is first and foremost a gaping psychic wound, a blood-spattered, pulsating tumor ripped violently from both its creator’s head and, more fascinatingly, his heart, then planted on-screen, raw and unfettered, for all to come and see. That is its beauty and its limitation. Shyamalan’s self-described bedtime story is as uncompromised a film as they come, yet it is cut from distressingly egocentric cloth, the product of a man with a frighteningly sincere messiah complex. Shyamalan isn’t play-acting by casting himself in the film as a tortured writer who finds his muse in the mythical water creature Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). Like a populist Roland Barthes suddenly regressed to pre-adolescence, Shyamalan really believes in this hermetically sealed work’s every childlike (often childish) syllable, sign, and signifier that points the way to his inevitable deification. But what of the scenes where his character is genuinely humble before the muse, genuflecting and attentive as if in the presence of a power greater than him, and augmented by Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s own holy gaze (credit Shyamalan for picking true visionaries as his collaborators)? There is authentic contradiction here, more so than in the superficial shenanigans of Shyamalan’s thinly veiled and ineffective political allegory The Village, and it is not a narrative afterthought.
The various types who populate the film’s single setting—a seemingly nondescript Pennsylvania apartment complex called The Cove—are as much an emotional mess as their creator, the ostensible star of the multi-culti rogues gallery being Cleveland Heep (a superb Paul Giamatti), a stutter-afflicted building superintendent who harbors a tragic secret. He seems a weak-willed cripple, but when asked by a reclusive neighbor (Bill Irwin) if “mankind deserves to be saved,” Cleveland responds without hesitation and in surprising earnest: “Yes.” It is some kind of achievement that Cleveland’s thought (the organic heart of the film) doesn’t come off as pandering lip service, unlike the unfortunate B-plot involving the arrogant film critic Mr. Farber (a one-dimensional construct created solely for the auteur’s lip-smacking revenge) to whom actor Bob Balaban nonetheless gamely adds several shades of gray. One wonders if the character’s namesake, the great film critic Manny Farber, would have been as baffled as this writer by Shyamalan’s film maudit, which inhabits some kind of nebulous space between those Farber-coined extremes: white-elephant art and termite art. For those brave souls willing to get lost in this Night-time labyrinth I can only guarantee you’ll come out changed, though whether for the better or for the worse we’d best, as the muse might advise, leave that to history’s reckoning.