M. Night Shyamalan is best known for his 1999 movie The Sixth Sense. That movie became famous for a last scene that completely changed the meaning of nearly every scene that preceded it. The country was swept up by the wonder that writer/director Shyamalan created through that twist ending, and the rest of Shyamalan’s career until now has been an attempt to re-create that moment.
The two movies that followed The Sixth Sense, 2000’s Unbreakable and 2002 Signs, were not able to reach this goal. The ending of Unbreakable was nearly identical to The Sixth Sense (they even use the same actor — Bruce Willis — for the protagonist), while Signs aimed for a feeling of warmth by the end instead of a change in meaning.
Shyamalan’s fourth film — The Village — was a return to the medium that made him famous. It was not just the movie’s “twist ending” — nor the identity and nature of the Creatures surrounding The Village, nor the properties of the forbidden woods — but that it was a horror tale in the greatest tradition. Indeed, The Village reaches further into the horror genre than The Sixth Sense did, showing us not just a strange world that should not be, but a familiar world that must not be.
The Village is terrible — full of terror — because we see nearly everything through the villain’s eyes. Other movies of course attempt this, 2001’s Donnie Darko notable coming very close, but the relentlessness of The Village is exceptions. As feeling human beings, we believe that if we understand someone’s motives — if they have the emotions that we do, and the needs that we do — then their actions cannot be horrible. The Village shatters this helpful illusion, portraying the hideous control of a madman over a hamlet without breaking out of the madman’s world.
Yet if The Sixth Sense and The Village are Tragedies, in the classic sense, then Lady in the Water is a true Comedy. Throughout the movie action inevitably builds, but the viewer must always wonder: “If this The Village again? Is that man mad.” The subtle claustrophobia of The Village returns, even stronger now that one looks for it, and one is painfully aware that no alternative perspective is available. Flashes of what other characters see are gut-wrenching, yet even here the audience is deceived. Apparent gibbering madness and drug-induced dementia are laughed off, truly showing Shymalan’s ability to exploit film’s ability of misdirection to the hilt.
Brilliant movies are comprehensible on many levels, and Lady in the Water is brilliant. Not only is it a Comedy in the sense of being anti-Tragedy, but it is also a comedy in the sense of being funny. The audience in the theatre was often laughing, and the happiness in the room was wonderful. (The comedy is also probably what earned the movie hateful reviews, such as Medved’s comment that the movie is “a full-out, flamboyant cinematic disaster, a work of nearly unparalleled arrogance and vapidity”: a film critic is the main target of human relief. Some of his best lines would give away plot points to reproduce here, but let it be said that film critics in this movie are treated as lawyers are in many others.)
I am very happy to have seen Lady in the Water. You will be too. Go see it.