It’s been a long, long time since I’ve actively wanted to see a movie fail. M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Lady in the Water opens this weekend, and if the trailer is anything to judge by, this one’s going to sink to the bottom of the pond. I shouldn’t even care, since I’m a pretty firm believer that people like different things, and to each his own. (I also believe that people shouldn’t trash a movie without seeing it, but here I go breaking that rule.) But I find myself upset at Shyamalan, because he’s taken his considerable movie-making gifts and squandered them.
Like most everyone, I enjoyed The Sixth Sense immensely. Beautifully shot, it was spooky and smart and I totally fell for the surprise ending. It was a massive success — and that’s where the problem began. Like nearly all mega-successes, Shyamalan was given free reign to do whatever he wanted on other movies. “He knows a secret,” said the studios, “and he’ll continue to make a lot of money for us.” But for some reason, Shyamalan must have figured that his secret was the surprise twist ending. And, like other successful directors, no one has said no when they needed to. (Well, that might not be entirely true, since Disney ultimately ditched Lady in a backstory that’s being aggressively marketed — including a book by the director, which I’m sure is supposed to be a big “screw you” to Disney but ultimately, I think, will make the Disney folks look prescient. I don’t have the time or energy to dig into that.)
I didn’t see Unbreakable, but I did suffer through Signs, which affirmed that he thinks that the twist ending must be his strength. In reality, it’s become a glaring weakness, especially since the “secret” can be sussed out long before the movie is over. Hence, I had no desire to see The Village.
With Lady in the Water, however, Shyamalan’s greater weakness has come forward, which Ryan Stewart at Cinematical encapsulates perfectly:
Lady in the Water can best be described as the most recent entry in M. Night 2.0, a filmography that began abruptly in the last fifteen minutes of 2002’s Signs. That was the moment when an otherwise economic, nail-biting thriller — like the ones that preceded it — suddenly unspooled into a morass of evangelical blubbering about the need of man to accept that everything happens for a reason and keep his spiritual tuning fork in sync with the realm of signs and wonders around him. Up until that moment, even his critics would have described M. Night Shyamalan as a director who understood the principle of “show, don’t tell,” and one who crafted his films with a fine razor blade, leaving all unnecessary shavings on the cutting room floor. But no more. Lady is all the proof we need that Night’s hard U-turn from Boy Hitchcock into the Jehovah’s Witness of movie directors has made for an unsatisfying transformation. That said, if you like the new Night, you’ll be happy to know that Paul Giamatti’s Cleveland Heep is a classic M. Night 2.0 hero — a former doctor who suffered a tragedy and lost his faith in the possibility of miracles and now squanders his talents by doing the grunt work of unclogging drains and handing out keys to newly arrived tenants.
It’s too bad, because Shyamalan is definitely a gifted director. His camera work can be amazing. So I’m hoping that Lady in the Water fails, kicks him out of this thematic rut, and gets him back into better form. The best thing to happen to Shyamalan’s career is for him to direct someone else’s script. But that won’t happen until he’s knocked off his self-made pedestal.