Lady in the Water Review

First, I should mention that Shyamalan is a virtuoso of atmosphere. It is not simply that one or two or three scenes in his films have atmosphere but that each film leaves one with a definite impression--of fear, apprehension, loneliness. The result is that his films feel whole; they hang together. It is a nice change from the "then this happens, then this happens" feeling of so many movies and books (although Shymalan comes pretty close to that approach in Lady). He also has a tremendous ability to command strong and unusual performances from a range of actors.

I came to the movie with zero expectations. This was a good thing. If I had watched the movie expecting, well, the movie that was previewed, I would have been sorely disappointing. There are so many great mermaid myths out there, why not utilize them? But the movie isn't really about mermaids or merpeople or merlore. About a half hour into the film, I decided that Shyamalan is really talking about writing. Or rather, the process of writing. Or, to be specific, Shyamalan's process of writing.

How does one create a story? How does one determine the purpose of the characters, their influence on each other and on the plot? Naturally, the film arrives at the conclusion so often used by Shyamalan himself: the purpose of the characters can never be determined until the very end, where it will reveal itself in unexpected ways. Personally, I think Shyamalan overuses this approach, but I found the process by which he arrives at that particular writing choice to be fascinating. His tendency to use "trick" endings is built into his understanding of story itself. (And it is no mistake that Story's name is "story.")

Considering Shyamalan's proclivity for unexpected endings, I was touched that he saved for himself the role of the writer. Wrapped up in this role is, of course, the wish of every writer that his or her work will be profound, remembered, influential. But Shyamalan (who is, by the way, eminently photographable) saves the role from too much back-patting with the writer's final question to Story. With stammering incoherence, the writer acknowledges the improbability that words alone change the world; he knows how fragile or ill-remembered words can be. Language only becomes a risk when the writer risks himself.

And that willingness to risk is applauded over the critic's pithy deconstructions (however hilarious). Although I did wonder if Shyamalan was indulging himself a bit there. Well, it's his film; he can do what he likes.

At the risk of being eaten, I will indulge in some of my own criticisms. Like all of Shyamalan's work, I am not sure how much I see in his work compared to how much Shyamlan intended. Granted, work with substance is preferable to work without substance. But in order to move Shyamalan from good filmmaker to classic filmmaker, I think he needs more purpose: a sense of direction. Like The Village, Lady in the Water seems to have so many great ideas without focus. The ideas are engaging; Shyamalan has a lot to say. But the form or structure behind the "lots of something to say" is missing.

Still, I recommend Lady in the Water; I advise only no expectations.


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