Review: “Lady in the Water”

With ‘Lady’, director M. Night Shyamalan continues his increasingly self-absorbed and often embarrassing slide into a near parody of the style which made him a household name overnight. At one point there the filmmaker, whose interesting mix of Twilight Zone-style fantasy with Hitchcockian overtones, was being pushed by the hype machine as the next great mainstream filmmaking visionary ala Steven Spielberg.

Yet something didn’t sit quite right – maybe it was the disappointing results of the underrated “Unbreakable”, maybe the ever growing swell of criticism towards his increasingly silly stories, and maybe it’s simply the director started to believe his own hype. Whatever the case his latest, “Lady in the Water”, is his weakest film yet and in some ways an utter shambles.

You have to give him credit though – the man knows how to shoot and manages to get some impressive visuals out of a mediocre apartment building set. He also edits relatively well with little in the way of pacing problems, and a skill for hiring solid actors in his various parts. Taken entirely on a surface level, there’s a somewhat mysterious beauty to it all – a desperate child’s cry of hope that this modern fantasy will be a tale for the ages.

Unfortunately that hope has been buried in an absolute mess of structure and character which demonstrates perfectly why a director/writer who doesn’t seek input should never be allowed near a camera. The script is utterly atrocious, though not in the ways we’re used to seeing onscreen. Gone is his knack for cleverly construction of scenarios, interesting revelations and decent attempts at characterisation.

In its place we get a convoluted plot completely lacking in any credibility, ludicrous character constructs, and all too often a sense of moral outrage and self-importance. “Lady in the Water” is the most textbook example I’ve ever seen of defensive filmmaking, one who includes blunt arbitrary allegories inserted into the narrative simply to settle personal grudges rather than to service the story. At times it screams of a director not just with ego but all the manners of a petulant child.

The actors, mostly good ones, struggle with reams of dialogue and exposition in rote roles. There’s an obvious attempt to create a modern myth, but to do so requires many of those characters to service in only one function – most notably a stereotypical Asian girl who’s only purpose is long bouts about the mythical creatures who threaten our heroinne (in between her bouts of club-going and skanky antics).

There’s an interesting heart here, one that is lost in muddled execution that takes itself too seriously for us to ever engage with let alone believe in. It steps onto wild flights of fantasy without any justification for its actions (consequently robbing it of any real suspense). There’s no sense of logic or reality to its own story let alone the real world, leaving the whole thing so preposterous and ultimately stupid that only those off in the clouds themselves will find rewards within.