“Because I don’t believe in anything and I want to be someone to believe,” the line from the Counting Crows’ song “Mr. Jones” encapsulates the shallow plight of the human characters in M. Night Shyamalan’s latest dramatic failure, The Lady in the Water. It’s not that the film doesn’t have its moments, or its performances (particularly that of Paul Giamatti), or its humorous scenes. It is rather that Shyamalan’s film takes the willing suspension of disbelief, thought to be a presumption of serious engagement with fiction, and transforms it into a directorial demand of a will to believe so craven that it is guaranteed to bring out the unbeliever in you.
The film begins with a mythic history that traces man’s alienation from the natural world of water. From an original union with water, men have traveled further onto land in a greedy quest for possession. The water world has not entirely despaired of mankind, whose world is now rent by war and void of guidance. Occasionally a creature is sent on a mission to the human world, but mankind has “forgotten how to listen.”
With that introduction, we make an abrupt transition to modern Philadelphia, where Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a stuttering and down on his luck superintendent at an apartment complex, suspects kids may be swimming in the pool at night. One night he sees someone emerge from the water, grab something off a chair, and return to the water. Heep begins to panic when the swimmer remains submerged; his efforts to find the swimmer leave him exhausted. He collapses into the pool and nearly drowns. But a young woman named Story (Bryce Dallas Howard playing the same sort of frail ethereal character that she played in Shyamalan’s The Village, only here with sight but no clothes) saves him and takes him back to his apartment. When she claims to be from the Blue World, Heep asks, “Is that an apartment building?” Soon — all too soon, in fact, to salvage the credibility of the plot — Heep is a true believer in Story’s story about the Blue World, how she was sent to meet a writer, and how her role as a narf is threatened by a vicious animal called a scrunt. (The scrunt, by the way, bears a striking resemblance to the ominous creature from The Village.)
Cleveland discovers that his Korean neighbors, Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung) and her mother (June Kyoto Lu), know a good bit about the traditional tale of the narf, or at least the non-assimilated mother does. Having heard the tales as bedtime stories in her youth, Young-Soon responds to Heep’s plea for information by saying, “I don’t remember.” There is an obvious echo here of the film’s opening myth but Shyamalan does nothing with this plot possibility. The contrast between an older eastern culture and a modern rationalistic, individualistic and skeptical western culture would seem to be a perfect foil for Shyamalan’s story. As would the hilarious tension between mother and daughter, who provide the film’s most consistent humor. But, except as a source of details for the myth, the Choi family is simply left out of the plot. Shyamalan here misses a great opportunity to play against one another two ways of approaching myth and culture.
Without such a serious and engaging human plotline, the film becomes an exercise in pious credulity. The problem is that no one exercises sufficient skepticism to meet the audience where it is. In this, Lady is unlike Signs, Unbreakable, the Sixth Sense, or even his little known and superb debut film, Wide Awake. Here everybody just cannot wait to play a role in a real-life fairy tale. As one of the characters commands the others, “it’s time we made a story come true.” If heavy doses of the dour and despairing films of the likes of Ingmar Bergman can drive certain viewers to reconsider God or at least to feel His absence in ways they would not otherwise, Shyamalan’s latest entry could have thinking viewers longing for atheism.
In the midst of a horror genre that seems unable to escape ironic camp and self-parody, on the one hand, and an obsession with the surface aesthetics of torture, on the other, Shyamalan’s films stand out as attempts to return horror to the big questions and to replace terror with suspense. In the latter context, Shyamalan is sometimes compared to Hitchcock and he has taken on Hitchcock’s habit of appearing in his films. But he has none of his Hitchcock’s sense of irony about his filmmaker-actor role. Abandoning the restraint of a cameo appearance, Shyamalan plays the crucial human character in this film, a writer to whom the narf is commissioned to deliver a message that bears upon the future of humanity. Moreover, he seems to have forgotten something of which Hitchcock never lost sight, that it is his duty to tell a good story. Neither viewers nor critics owe him a sympathetic viewing. He is still superb at evoking moods and he uses Giamatti’s talents well in this film.
The only exception to the otherwise unanimous drink-the-cool-aid attitude of the denizens of this apartment complex is Harry Farber (Bob Balaban), a film critic. His insouciant skepticism is a refreshing counter to the mindless credulity of everyone else in the film. Shyamalan’s brutal way of eliminating Farber from the scene, even as he provides horror movie commentary on his own situation, has been seen by hyper-sensitive film critics as evidence of Shyamalan’s vindictiveness. But the scene is genuinely funny, evidence that Shyamalan has not completely lost his sense of irony.
Even where he fails, as he does here, Shyamalan still instructs. His struggle as a filmmaker embodies the plight of all those who long for a sense of purpose in a contemporary world that often treats grand narratives with derisive scorn. The problem with the mythic world of Lady is not that the fairy tale itself is incredible, but that the adult characters in the film are so desperate to believe in any story whatsoever, in any myth larger than themselves, that it all becomes matter of fact. It’s a myth without a mystery. But that is what inevitably befalls individuals who profess true belief in a myth they simultaneously know to be nothing more than a human construct.