Among the most curious traditions of any director with regards to their home releases, M. Night Shyamalan continued to insist in the early 2000s that one of his old home movies be included on each DVD of his films. It’s rare for a director working inside the Hollywood studio system to treat their work so personally but even more so to the degree that Shyamalan does with this tradition. He doesn’t just trace his evolution from a young Spielbergian home video filmmaker to classicist auteur, but demonstrates how he can use his childlike sensibilities to accentuate the adult themes of his work. It's interesting to see him move from a fight sequence staged with odd old rock in the background to the final, fleeting and beautiful sequence of Unbreakable.
While a home movie is noticeably absent on the Warner copy of Lady in the Water, it is the film that would showcase the qualities of those forgotten experiments at their peak until 2015’s The Visit. Considering how these elements come together, it’s not hard to see why Disney initially had interest in the project but ultimately dropped it. Lady in the Water is essentially a children’s fantasy film for adults. It remains the apex of all of the director’s trademark powers. Stark humanism, anxiety about failure, and circumstantial tragedy all permeate throughout the film. Within the confines of the bedtime-story narrative are all of Shyamalan’s most memorable elements, both from his prior faith-driven work and his recent family-driven narratives of late. As the characters struggle and resist against the confines of the narrative, The Lady in the Water becomes the ultimate meta-cinematic statement on the director’s work.
Behind Lady in the Water there’s this deep, authorial insecurity. Or, at the very least, the affectation of it. Shyamalan continues his long-standing tradition of acting in a cameo role, but this time he isn’t poised in the background strategically. He places himself directly into the author stand-in role as a writer named Vick Ran who begins penning The Cookbook, presumably a series of political essays on modern culture, contemporary politics and current affairs. Story, the titular lady in the water who can see the future, tells Vick that the book will be read and loved by a young boy who will grow up into a great orator and an influential leader in the country, that Vick’s words will be “the seed of many of the boy’s greatest thoughts”. When Shyamalan premiered The Sixth Sense to stellar reviews and later Signs, both considered by many to be modern masterpieces, he was championed and revered as one of the next greats in cinema, Newsweek infamously declaring him “The Next Spielberg”. In later years, his reputation tarnished by one critical and financial failure after the other, it starts to take it’s toll. After The Village, by far Shyamalan’s most personal, disappointed, it seems he’s doubled-down on exactly what it is he wants to be doing. He’s unsure of himself, but confident enough to continue making the films he wants to make, even if he’s misunderstood again and again. “There’s a lot of things in The Cookbook people won’t like to hear” Vick laments. The film postulates what storytellers have been lamenting since the form began: that writers don’t really write narratives or characters in their life. Shyamalan doesn’t conjure up stories; he doesn’t make his characters up, but rather through spontaneous inspiration they come to him almost divinely, and he is therefore given the responsibility to tell their story right. Shyamalan doesn’t place himself in his role as an act of narcissism or to boost his own ego but rather the opposite. It demonstrates the fear of failure from someone who was championed and celebrated after only one successful film whose been slowly abandoned as his heart grew larger, his stories more sincere. Not to say that those who don’t like Shyamalan’s late output are out of their right but that there’s clear, disheartening trajectory seen as his films continue to be misunderstood in intent. It’s quite funny that a film featuring the line “What kind of person would be so arrogant to presume to know the intention of another human being” was voted “Least Scary Horror Film of 2006”.
It’s about purpose, ultimately. Shyamalan doesn’t only feel misplaced as the writer who “saves” the world but each character finds themselves placed in an arbitrary role struggling to work through the responsibilities until realizing during the Healing that the man who placed them there was wrong all along. The interpreter was never the skilled word puzzle connoisseur Mr. Dury but rather his son, who saw true meaning behind the most coincidental. The guardian was never Mr. Heep but rather Reggie, who worked out only one side of his body in an attempt to be special. The healer was never Ms. Bell but the previously mentioned Mr. Heep, who truly believed in the good humanity even after the death of his loved ones in the most tragic of instances. All of them are trying to help Story return to her home, but even Story doesn’t realize her role until late in the film where she learns she’s the “Madame Narf”, she responds by saying “I’m clumsy. They all make fun of me”. And just like the characters in the film struggle to fit the roles they’ve been given, the author feels the struggle to fit the expectations he’s been given. It’s tempting to read the film critic character Harry Farber as part of some hidden antipathy towards critics on the author’s part, and in a way it’s not far-fetched. Farber, all things considered, represents the opposing philosophy on storytelling, that any story can be boiled down to a series of tropes and storylines lifted from works of past. Shyamalan renders this element without much subtlety when Farber’s misinformation is ripped apart in the Healing scene, setting the grounds for the philosophical platform that explains why the film is so vitriolic. There’s something to be said about the view of Shyamalan’s past career as a series of failures following an initial fall from grace (usually either this film, The Happening, or even as early as The Village or Signs) and how his continued disappointment shaped his filmmaking over the years. The less-than-warm reception of Shyamlan’s most personal film The Village, despite it’s ultimately high appraisal by Cahiers du Cinema as one of the ten best films of 2004, may have planted the seeds for Lady in the Water’s melancholic tone.
If Shyamalan’s true intent was Lady in the Water was to set the record straight about what his cinema is about and how it should be read, then it was an unfortunate and spectacular failure. He would not have his first “true” rejection until 2008’s The Happening which gained nearly no proponents until years later, but Lady in the Water failed to even live up to the niche promise of The Village, save for the flattery of Cahiers du Cinema. It almost feels like Shyamalan bearing his soul in this way sort of sealed his fate for the upcoming years of critical backlash, studio intervention, and poor box office turnout, which is a sad legacy for such a masterful film.