The Dark Soul of Night

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The New York Sun

This weekend, on 3,100-plus screens across the nation, M. Night Shyamalan, director of such films as “The Sixth Sense” and “The Village,” is having a complete mental breakdown. Some said no more surprises could come from the famously self-aggrandizing purveyor of hermetic, color-coded universes of belabored creep-out. But “Lady in the Water,” though not entertaining, is undeniably the summer’s most unique studio product and surely the one most excruciatingly obsessed with suspense.

Extravagantly purposeful but to little real purpose, “Lady in the Water” envisions a fragile fairy tale of “narfs” and “scrunts” under our very noses (well, in a Philadelphia condo complex). Mr. Shyamalan’s creation is a tortured, paranoid response to naysaying critics that fuses all the hallmarks of his obsessive narrative and visual attentiveness to a self-consciousness that is deeply and tragically clueless.

The story is an adaptation of a bedtime tale that Mr. Shyamalan told his children, a book version of which is being released simultaneously. (From the dust jacket, and the mind of a master: “Sometimes I just see something in the room and say, ‘You see that drawer? There’s something in that drawer.'”)

But the real Story, the water nymph or narf (Bryce Dallas Howard) lurks in the condo common pool. She comes from “the Blue World,” whose inhabitants used to look after humans (as a drawn-out opening animation explains). Her mission: to unveil an avatar who walks among us.

Superintendent Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) knows nothing about all this, and for the remainder of the movie, we join him on a journey of putting the confounding pieces of this puzzle together, and how those pieces might point the way to the avatar, and of discovering who might know the answers, and which condo residents play roles dubbed the Guardian, the Healer, or the Guild. It’s Jacques Rivette meets the Bloodhound Gang, with freelance naming by Matthew Barney.

Amid the character intrigue, Cleveland takes in Story to protect her from a scrunt who patrols the patch of green bordering the pool (scrunts being essentially grass-haired cousins to the Rodents of Unusual Size from “The Princess Bride”). Otherwise, the motel-like condo environs is the stir-crazy setting for Cleveland’s mythological detective work, and it’s populated exclusively by boxed-in comic-book stereotypes. These include a bodybuilder with one massive arm, a roomful of potheads, an old Jewish couple who embarrass each other, and, fatefully, incredibly, a novelist with writer’s block living with his sister.

The writer’s name is Vick, who may be the savior, and perhaps I don’t need to tell you that he is played by Mr. Shyamalan, dully. If you couldn’t tell from the primary colors, the magisterial camera, and the old-fashioned boomaking, the director himself appears on screen to remind you that this time, it really is personal. “There’s a lot of things in [my book] that people won’t like to hear,” he warns. Back off, wet blankets.

Cleveland and company chase down the strands of this filmmaker’s interminable tale-in-search-of-itself, sounding like nothing so much as children working out a story as they go. Or madmen: “Does the narf know who the chosen one is?” Mr. Giamatti intones, pleadingly, ludicrously, his underdog twitchiness garnished with a stutter (which Story can cure).

But a moment of respect, please, for the uncompromising audacity of this highly personal work, and for the depth of Mr. Shyamalan’s confidence in the appeal of watching a creative act under construction, even if it consists of numerous characters crowded around a man trying to glean clues to a crossword puzzle. The director all but turns to the audience and asks us to believe, so that all might really be so. It’s a child’s fantasy, which might even appeal to children if their parents let them within 20 feet of its cultish intensity.

The film’s laborious feel can truly be grasped by imagining the director’s formidable, even Spielbergian powers of focusing and manipulating audience reaction, were they applied with unblinking intensity to every plot point in something other than a thriller. Instead, they’re mostly applied to a self-conscious defense of the fantastic. One character living in the complex who doesn’t believe is a film critic (Bob Balaban), who is ultimately killed, immediately after he makes a cynical interpretation of the movie’s events.

Ms. Howard clearly believes, though she hardly moves a muscle on her face. More than the director’s blocked-out mise-en-scène (which sometimes suggests Mr. Shyamalan made a wager to see if he could set an entire film in and around one building), it’s her otherworldly presence and alabaster visage that is the movie’s enduring creation. She’s a statue come to life, one who could launch a thousand Del Rey covers. (If only Mr. Shyamalan could keep his roving camera off her legs.)

She may save Mr. Heep, but what about us? It’s time to recall the title’s similarity to the 1947 film noir, “The Lady in the Lake.” An extraordinary studio stunt, it was shot from the visual perspective of its protagonist; wherever he looked, the camera turned, revealing his face only in mirrors. “Mysteriously starring Robert Montgomery and you!” went the tagline. Welcome, then, to the “Lady in the Lake,” desperately starring M. Night Shyamalan and You.

The New York Sun

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