M. Night Shyamalan serves up another surprise with the exotic, lovely and bold Lady in the Water.
Cleveland Heep is killing a bug. He is down on his knees, head under the kitchen sink, wildly smashing an unseen creepy-crawly with the business end of a broom. He stutters and stabs, tangibly exasperated and terribly comic. A screaming gaggle of young Spanish girls stands behind him in the crowded kitchen, surrounding their bewildered father and holding onto each other at least as fiercely as they clutch bug spray, meat cleavers and various others weapons of fast destruction. The father helpfully translates his daughters' increasingly hysterical observations as Heep wages his one-man war. The scene is a savvy exercise in strangeness, from the camera's under-the-sink vantage point to the heightened hilarity of our hero's quixotic kill. This is, however, the least strange scene that Heep will encounter today. Why? Because he lives in the imagination of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, that scary, fertile, deep forest of fright and fantasy and faith.
Shyamalan is probably best known for his Oscar-nominated blockbuster The Sixth Sense (1999). Impossibly well-scripted and impeccably directed, Sense is the master work of a master filmmaker ' how on earth could it be the first time audiences had heard Shyamalan's name? No matter; the movie's break-out-hit status assured that it would not be the last. Shyamalan has continued to create inventive, lushly filmed works of art: the unrelenting Unbreakable (2000), the symbolically sanctified Signs (2002) and a haunted, haunting The Village (2004). No two are similar; no one is anything other than quietly brilliant. But they aren't scary movies, and people should start getting used to that. Ever since Sense, reductionist marketers have insisted on playing up the suspenseful elements of Shyamalan's work, rather than his odd originality, and they do him a disservice. His movies aren't about horror, and audiences shouldn't come looking for run-of-the-mill thrills or I-see-dead-people retreads.
What is most striking about Sense, in retrospect, is not even its fear factor (although its creepiness still collects right between your shoulder blades even after multiple viewings), but its full-bodied faith ' in a young boy's courage, a mother's love, a stranger's compassion. Sense is about all the unsettling things that aren't dreamt of in our philosophy and only a few of the ones that are. This is Shyamalan's hallowed hunting ground. His greatest trick is crafting popcorn flicks that make profound statements about belief, strength and freedom from fear. He is a virtuosic storyteller, a sage whose films feed the eye, the mind and the heart. Lady in the Water is his latest triumph.
When Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) isn't battling bugs, he's tending to the janitorial and maintenance needs of the thousand-and-one other tenants of a development called The Cove. The apartment complex is peopled with odd ducks: the newly arrived, flat-line-personality film critic (Bob Balaban); the bodybuilder bulking up one arm only (Freddy Rodriguez); a set of stoners; a stern, quiet man who never seems to move away from his television set; an earth mother (Mary Beth Hurt); a blocked writer (Shyamalan) and his chatty sister (Sarita Choudhury); a word-puzzling father (Jeffrey Wright) and his cereal-eating son (Noah Gray-Cabey). And finally, a mysterious night swimmer. From his quiet caretaker's cottage, the heavy-hearted Heep sees the splashes but only accidentally discovers the identity of his nocturnal visitor. He almost drowns, but the lady in the water, Story (an ethereally blank Bryce Dallas Howard), rescues him. Story, it seems, is from another place, the Blue World, and she's got to see a man about an Awakening. (The terminology is explained in a scene-setting voiceover at the film's opening.) Tutored by an Asian mother-daughter duo, Heep soon realizes that he is living an ancient bedtime story in a world much more strange and complicated than the sheltered Cove he calls home. Story may have saved him, but now he has to save Story. (The metaphoric implications dazzle, don't they?)
What follows is the strangest movie of the summer, probably the year. It is darkly funny ' we get a sense of Shyamalan's attitude toward critics ' and astonishingly moving. Heep has a secret, which we are told about in short order, but later on, it spills out from his very center, in Shyamalan's simple, searing dialogue. It's a transcendent scene of a lost man finding a purpose for his pain. And it sits in the center of a totally self-aware postmodern parable. A parable about what? Take your pick from its dozens of narrative layers: the saving grace of faith, the purposes we can't easily see in ourselves or the people around us, the importance of a willing suspension of disbelief.
Giamatti is the perfect vessel for Shyamalan's most human creation; his Heep is harried, disheveled and a lot beaten down. But a spark still lives in his heart, and all it takes to unleash it is a chance encounter with Story. A Story that requires him to be an active participant. A Shyamalan Story.