Positive Review of "Lady in the Water" by M. Night Shyamalan

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.

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9 thoughts on “Positive Review of "Lady in the Water" by M. Night Shyamalan
  1. I thought 6th Sense was ok, was extremely disappointed with Signs and didn't see The Village because my sister spoiled the ending for me and I figured it probably wasn't worth it.

    Lady in the Water might be interesting, its always great to see creativity. Hopefully the theater on my bus route will get it.

  2. 1. MedVed is usually ridiculously silly and bloated: a tragedy in the sense that film critics should be more focused on the movies they review than on the sound of their own voices or the pretty typography they use for writing reviews.

    2. Shyamalan's movies should be rated in this order, from best to worst: Signs, Unbreakable, The Village/The Sixth Sense (tie). Haven't seen the latest yet. The Sixth Sense is actually a gimmick, which works once and only once, impossible to experience in the same way after the first viewing; later viewings reveal that it is turgid and a quite self-conscious affair on Shyamalan's part. Signs delves much deeper into human cognition — perhaps why I like it best — and Unbreakable is one of the greatest “super hero” movies ever made, also moving deeper into human psychology than either The Village or, especially, The Sixth Sense. I did not like the fact that “the secret” in The Village was revealed long before the ending, on first viewing; but later viewings have raised my estimate of that complex movie. (Actually, it probably is better than The Sixth Sense. My quibble is in the fact that it could have been better made by delaying a little longer a revelation of the secret.)

    You brought me out of my vacation for this comment, Dan…

  3. 'pro bono' is right! wish there were some more denarii in that bono! 😉 if we had micropayments, i could make a career of this thing! 😉

  4. that's a pretty mangled definition. not exactly the “classic” standard, but close.

    “tragedy then, is an imitation of an action which is serious and complete and has a proper magnitude, completed in speech with form of appropriate enhancements to each of its parts and used separately, put on by performers via drama – not narrative, and ending by means of pity or fear in an emotional release.” Aristotle's Poetics, 1449b25

    i won't bore you with the ongoing debate of whether or not the cathartic moment is the final cause of tragedy, or whether or not this definition is simply a recitation of the formal and material causes of tragedy. obviously my interpretation is the latter.

    point being, i'm not sure i agree that the movies you cite are in fact “tragedies”. and indeed in the classical world, they are not tragedies properly so called, since they don't involve protagonists who are great men.

    without greatness in play, there is no proper magnitude, and they are more comedic (bafoons doing great things) than tragic (great men doing base things).

    that said, i'm not a fan of shymalan. every movie of his i've watched i have disliked intensely. but your review has my curiosity peaked, perhaps i'll give this a try.

  5. dan: i appreciate your response. i will see the movie. but first i have to find time to get to the theater.

    i disagree with your analysis in a small way though. the victory of christianity has not made all men great, it has made the lowly great, and the great lowly… if i remember that right of course.

    also, and this is a tangent i know, but see if you can indulge. you originally said the movie was a tragedy in the classic sense. but you buttressed that definition just now with a rather good piece of christian victory analysis.

    is it wrong for me to point out that the victory of christianity was anything but “classical”? a classic virtue, thumos for example, is a christian sin. i realize your point wasn't to equate them, but isn't it a rather odd thing to do? to say that anything christian, that any of the egalitarian precepts you pointed to, are somehow “classic” is a unorthodox, to say the least… wouldn't you agree to that?

    sonny: aristotle had a nice retort to such a query. if you had a good upbringing, you will know what a great man is. but suffice it to say, the greek notion encompassed far more of the natural human than the christian.

    what do you think a great man is? certainly those who we view as great today, indeed those who are termed the “greatest” are often those we despise most. so it can't possibly be that greatness is a virtue.

  6. I believe that the “great men” of Greek tragedy had to be “great” because everything that happened in a Greek tragedy was caused by Olympus: the man finds himself in a situation caused by the gods or at least involving the gods, and in such a situation he must be “great” in order to cope. These heroes tended to be one-dimensional; looking back at these tragedies, it seems that the “great man” was really just another “god” struggling through the influence of the real gods (a “mortal god?”). I.e., he was really great, but mortal.

    Morality tales from the Middle Ages through Shakespeare (or thereabouts) operated similarly, except the issue of sin — or a man's causing his own situation, leading to possible tragedy — took some of the situational dynamic from the hands of God. God set the situation, but the man decided whether to act in a holy manner or a wicked manner.

    From Shakespeare on, the question of sin became fairly irrelevant. God took a back seat, to watch the play. 😉 Then, the man — who could hardly be expected to know God's mind or even have an inkling of any such plan — became the “sole force” in the play, and the tragedy he endured was of his own making — yes, but also a bit out of his hands, because he was, alas, a mere mortal human being and quite ignorant.

    So, I also wonder what the heck was meant by “the greek notion encompassed far more of the natural human than the christian.” Perhaps considering Greek poetry and other things, yes; but not the tragedies, I think.

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