Lady in the Water

M. Night Shyamalan is a great director, but even he could not turn this unique story into anything worth seeing. The plot disappoints and the acting is subpar, leaving M. Night fans a little jaded in the end.
By  · Published on July 27th, 2006

Release Date: July 21, 2006

Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan has made a pretty successful career out of making movies that are not always what they seem at first. He shocked his viewers with startling revelations at the end of each of his most successful films; The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and The Village all had largely unexpected endings, which is one reason why he has gathered such a following. In short, these films were successful because we were always taken aback by some masterful plot twist that closed the film. Shyamalan’s latest film The Lady in the Water seems to be something similar. It seems to be a film with the potential to be another great addition to the M. Night Shyamalan portfolio. Unfortunately, just like his prior films, this one may not be exactly what it seems.

The reason that Lady in the Water seems to have such potential is that it fits into the classic Shyamalan mold; you take a few solid actors (in this case Paul Giamatti and Brice Dallas Howard), add them to a unique and interesting story, throw in some fresh cinematography and a eerie soundtrack and you have an instant hit, right? That is how it has worked in the past, and that is why this one is so difficult to take; because for all it has going for it, it just doesn’t pan out the way we think it will.

The story is very unique and interesting, that is true. Adapted from a bed time story that Shyamalan would tell his children, it is about a mythological woman called a narf (Howard) who is sent to earth to awaken one human’s destiny and then return to her home in “the Blue World.” The rough part for her is that there is a dog-like creature who Is trying to prevent this from happening and kill the narf, so she must seek the help of other humans who will help her fulfill her purpose. This is where the help of the standoffish groundskeeper Cleveland (Giamatti) and other tenants of The Cove will come in handy. And while it initially appears to be a simple story, there is much more going on than is initially revealed. For the viewer it becomes somewhat entertaining to follow along as each character’s role in the story is played out, but the film does have a painful sense of predictability. If it wasn’t for the story being so unique, the film would have been not only predictable but downright boring.

Another factor that helps keep us interested is the way this movie is filmed. Shyamalan has always had a knack for captivating visuals that as out of the ordinary as the stories he tells. Lady in the Water follows suit almost flawlessly in this regard. With the right use of slow motion scenes and some cool over the shoulder out of focus shots, Shyamalan delivers a visual experience that is world class. On top of that, a haunting soundtrack film is used precisely to create and maintain tension, a factor that holds the tension up even when the plot falls short. Shyamalan and company use silence better than anyone in the suspense genre, and this one benefits greatly from that skill. To put it simply, this film has a very creepy feel to it, and that seems to be the intended outcome.

But a movie cannot survive on just looking and sounding cool alone, can it? The film must also deliver some relatable and intriguing characters. This is where it seems that the filmmaker took his eye off of the ball. For starters it felt like Paul Giamatti was forcing dramatic moments, as if after every take Shyamalan would peek out from behind the camera and say “More dramatic! More dramatic!” And as much as I adore Giamatti as an actor, this performance just did not work in the context of the film. Everyone can see what type of character he was trying to portray, and it was even more transparent that he was trying to hard. The other snafu in acting is that of the director himself; Shyamalan usually inserts himself somewhere in his films, but he usually occupies a very nominal role. Here he has a much more pivotal part and he shows off why he is a great director, not a great actor. Hopefully he has gotten his vanity role out of the way and he can go back to directing great films, or else he will have a long and bumpy road as an actor.

But as disappoint as the performances in this film were, there is no more disappointing element than the lack of a big “a-ha” moment at the end. There was no story altering twist that left me glued to my seat through the entire credit sequence, which left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It is not to say that the movie does not twist and turn a bit, but there is nothing significant to speak of. The part that makes me even more saddened is that I can see where Shyamalan tried to create such a moment, but it fails miserably. This alone causes the end of the film to be significantly anticlimactic, tainting the entire experience.

When it all comes down to it, this is a film that is more captivating for its oddity rather than its substance. The story is unique, the film has a great look and feel, but the director just couldn’t hold it all together. When you think M. Night Shyamalan you think great story with a big ending. When I think Lady in the Water, I think that everyone should wait until they see this one on the shelves at Blockbuster before they see it.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)