Long ago I came across this excellent analysis of what must be one of the most unappreciated and misunderstood movies of all times - M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water. It was posted on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes boards by a guy with a nickname mjl517. At some point this review disappeared and currently there is no place on Internet where it can be found - so I decided to repost it here. No matter what do you think about Shyamalan or his movies, this is a must-read. Enjoy!
Shyamalan warned his audience to keep an open mind while watching this movie. He released a "children's book" to help establish the fantasy before the movie came out. But the complexities of its meaning are hidden behind its "fairy tale" facade. And like all fairy tales, the depth of this masterpiece extends well beyond the simplicity at its surface. If you have the interest, the endurance, AND YOU HAVE ALREADY SEEN THIS FILM, please read on.
This is a story of one man’s struggle to regain his faith and sense of purpose by overcoming emotional detachment and repression in the aftermath of an unfathomable tragedy.
First, consider the name of the apartment complex - "The Cove". A cove is a harbor along a body of running water, a sheltered inlet, like a driveway on a busy street. It is a place of seclusion, perhaps even a place to hide. The complex itself is U-shaped, and has a pool at its center. We can imagine that beyond the pool is the reality of the outside world, the “mainstream” of life. It is unknown, and something to be feared. Night has never made a movie that is so contained, so confined to a single location. The story takes place entirely within the Cove.
Now imagine that the Cove is not a physical location at all, but a world that exists only in one man's mind; and it is completely dependent upon and manipulated by his own psyche. People have commented on how the film's location lacks detail, that it is too simple, nondescript, childish, and unrealistic. This is not a flaw - this is by design. Cleveland Heep is its superintendent – its caretaker - its “healer”. And if the Cove is a product of one man's imagination, then its tenants must be as well. Cleveland has a casual familiarity with all of them. And they depend solely upon him for the mundane daily maintenance of their home - we never see his boss or any other employees. Moreover, the name “Heep” itself might reflect not only the great burden he carries, but also the great number of different “tenants” that comprise his psyche. *It is interesting to note that the British use the word “cove” as slang to mean “fellow” or “man”. Similarly, the word “Cleveland” has its roots in Old English, meaning “cliff land”, and the Clevelands were known as people from the cliffs. It is perhaps an allusion to both Cleveland’s isolation and an image of instability, danger, and urgency – “bearing a great burden, teetering on the edge of a cliff”.
In this sense, “The Lady in the Water” is arguably the most unique, imaginative, and ambitious tale of inner conflict and perseverance ever filmed. The struggle takes place within the secluded confines of an apartment complex, the tenants of which are, in this metaphorical sense, the separate, unique aspects of one man's damaged psyche. And each of them has a singular purpose in this fairy tale of faith, hope, and self-awakening. It is "a bedtime story", one of a particular type that we tell each other and ourselves before we sleep. These stories give us hope, comfort, and peace. We call them prayers.
The Cove is a close-knit community, and its tenants all seem to have lived there for some time. In fact, only two characters arrive during the movie's timeline - Story, the mythical narf, and Harry Farber, the movie critic (presumably named after legendary film critic, Manny Farber). And it is no coincidence that they show up at the same time - they are the dueling personifications of Cleveland's consuming inner conflict.
Story represents Cleveland's fractured and fragile faith in himself, in mankind, and in God. She is the hope for, and promise of, the belief in the unknown. Farber, by contrast, is the skeptic in Cleveland. His character is not simply a dig at Night's movie critics. He is the oppressive influence which closes Cleveland’s mind and forces him to see within "the rules", to accept that there is no originality left in the world, and nothing left to hope for. He defines the rules of Cleveland’s perception. Farber's simultaneous arrival represents the saboteur in Cleveland’s mind. He is the embodiment of Cleveland's debilitating doubt, generated to counter the arrival of Story – his savior, the inspiration for his burgeoning faith and redemption of purpose, presumably sent by God. While Story is the image of childlike purity and endless possibility, Farber is the closed, tamed mind of the adult, limited in imagination, and numbed by the sicknesses of society. These are the main figures in the conflict between doubt-skepticism and hope-faith. Note that Farber "must be very good" at his job in order to have been sent to this place from so far away. He is an appropriate counterpart to Story, who turns out to be of the highest and presumably most powerful status of her kind – a "Madam Narf". He is no ordinary critic, she is no ordinary narf. And it is fitting, as both Cleveland’s tragedy and his purpose are extraordinary.
The Cove’s pool is a metaphor for a man’s heart, once again incorporating Night’s connection of purity and innocence with water. Cleveland initially senses Story's presence in flashes - fleeting glimpses and the occasional sounds of splashing from the pool at night. Perhaps he has just enough faith left to recognize it when it is revealed. And he finds it in the pool, as one might find faith in the heart. She arrives naked, not only a reflection of the vulnerability of the fragile faith she represents, but a vision of the freedom and innocence that accompanies the purity of childlike inhibition. Far from able to embrace his faith, Cleveland is discomforted by her nakedness and gives her a shirt. His journal reveals to her the deep sorrow that presumably has led him to this place, and kept him lost from a life of fulfillment as a medical doctor. She reminds him that everyone has a purpose (a profound statement in the context of this story and its location). But watching Cleveland plead with Story to keep his secret from the tenants of the Cove, we witness the active repression of his pain and his debilitating inability to cope with the loss of his family. He cannot allow the separate aspects of his personality (the tenants) to experience the tragedy. Moreover, his crippling stutter (absent in her presence) is symptomatic of what appears to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unable to experience the inspiration, the “awakening” of her presence, he decides to help her complete her task and protect her from the “scrunt” sent to kill her.
Cleveland is guided throughout by the character of Young-Soon, whose mother knows the ancient story behind this narf. Young-Soon is the child aspect of Cleveland’s mind that is willing to believe in fairy tales. Consider that as she translates the story to Cleveland from her mother, the two characters hear the story together for the first time. At one point, she even expresses a hope that the story is true. Her immaturity, her recurring childish exit line "bye, Mr. Heep", and even her name suggest that she is a child (despite her noteworthy height), and thus more amenable to the tales of magic and fantasy that are normally dismissed by adults. Her mother is uncomfortable translating the story in its entirety until Cleveland presents himself to her as a child. But if she is part of the Cove, then so must be the story itself – perhaps heard long ago and buried in the subconscious, perhaps a complete fabrication, or possibly parts of both. It’s not surprising if you can accept that the Cove exists in the mind of a writer. Mrs. Choi is the elderly Korean woman from within the Cove (or invented by it) who becomes the source of this fairy tale. The adult psyche finds it easier to impede the conveyance of the unbelievable story by creating it in a foreign language and from the representation of a respected but unfamiliar source – the perception of a wise and holistic people unbound by Western convention.
The “scrunt” is the manifestation of the ills and evils of society, and the horrors of which man is capable, within Cleveland’s psyche. It is a monstrous form of the fear and anxiety that has denied Cleveland his ability to right his life since his crisis. It preys upon Story. It comes from outside the Cove, from the unknown reality beyond the pool, and it only fears the Tartutic. The Tartutic are the “justice” for which Cleveland cries out when the scrunt attacks Story on the night she should be allowed to leave freely. They might more accurately be thought of as “fate”, or as that which protects the course of predestination. They are the “should”.
The one man who can control the scrunt is the "Guardian". Cleveland’s search for the guardian is the search for that part of himself that is able to face his fear, to "look it in the eye". When he misidentifies this figure as himself and confronts the scrunt, it attacks him. But only the two new arrivals, Story and Farber, appear vulnerable to physical harm by the scrunt. It’s danger to Cleveland’s own character is not actual “death”, but the threat of the reinforcement of his fear and, consequently, his psychological dysfunction. Consider that when Cleveland is about to be attacked by the scrunt, he suddenly awakens (physically unharmed) with Farber standing above him, expressing his displeasure with some movie he has just seen, and arguing against the symbolic purity of water. Also consider that he is standing between Cleveland and the pool at the time, actualizing a metaphor of a man being denied the purity of his heart by his own skepticism and doubt. Cleveland actually credits Farber for having saved him from the scrunt. But Farber was not the savior - he was the trauma, the damage itself - the stifling of Cleveland’s belief, and the reinforcement of his doubt and inability to face his fear once again. It is a powerful crystallization of how Cleveland’s mind works against him.
Vick Ran (Shyamalan, himself), is “the writer inspired by the Story”. His first words to Cleveland – “The light over my desk is still broken.” You can’t write without light, and it’s something Cleveland has been putting off. But a light is not a difficult fix, and Vick does not seem to be in a rush to finish his book. Cleveland sees the book by chance while repairing the light, and initially dismisses its content after observing its title, “The Cookbook”. But he is soon reminded to never judge a book by its cover (how very appropriate).
Vick’s character is at least as important as Cleveland’s. The prediction of his future describes how his book will have a profound philosophical influence on the world, and how this socio-ideological impact would result in his own death. Vick draws an indirect comparison to Martin Luther King within the story itself; and we are reminded of other figures such as Christ, and of other doctrines, or “cookbooks”, such as the Bible. Vick represents the “purpose” that Story assures Cleveland he has not lost. He is the part of Cleveland’s psyche that is capable of accomplishing great things. Such endeavors, however, expose the psyche to harsh and potentially stifling criticism – the “murder” of the creative mind – something of which Night himself has faced, and continues to face, far too much.
Whether writing “The Cookbook” is the literal greatness, or purpose, of which Cleveland is capable, and whether the death of Vick Ran is the literal death of Cleveland Heep, is for the viewer to determine. But it is a reasonable conclusion, if you extend Cleveland’s role as the “healer” to meaning the “healer of mankind”. In this scenario, perhaps the pain of the tragedy he experienced would be the catalyst and inspiration for this doctor to attempt to change the world by writing a book. Conversely, it is conceivable that Vick Ran - the “writer”, the “purpose” - is the true subject of this story. He is the “vessel” of Story’s inspiration, and the only part of himself that Cleveland can correctly identify before being influenced by the skeptical, closed-minded Farber. He shares Cleveland’s sad and quiet demeanor, his self-effacement - "I'm nothing special". He is single (as are just about all of the main players as far as we are aware), but cannot easily care for himself, to cook or clean, and relies on his sister in this domestic capacity. Of course, he would be unaware that he has ever had a wife or children, as would all but two of the other tenants in the Cove, since that information has been repressed, hidden within Cleveland’s "journal". Cleveland Heep, the “healer”, may not actually be the man behind the psyche represented by the Cove, but only that part of the whole that is responsible for its healing. In this case, Cleveland’s task is to heal himself, Vick Ran – the healer of mankind. Therefore, Cleveland’s inability to satisfy this obligation until he, himself - "the healer", is healed is the true meaning behind this story.
In his search for the remaining cast that is necessary for Story to return to the "Blue World" Cleveland seeks the advice of Farber, the man he erroneously identifies as “the person whose opinion he respects”. This path ultimately culminates in a party (a celebration of Farber's arrival, no doubt!). And it is during what is, in essence, this celebration of skepticism and closed-mindedness that Story (Cleveland's faith) is dragged off and nearly killed. The series of misidentifications illustrates not only Cleveland’s detachment - his inability to know himself, but also the destructive process of another symptom of Cleveland's disturbed psyche - self-sabotage. So it is no coincidence that Cleveland cannot complete this task and accept that he is the “healer" (of Story, his faith) until Farber (his skepticism) is killed by the scrunt.
“The Guardian” turns out to be Reggie, who wears the dog tags of a soldier. He is a normal man that is not consumed with, but only partially occupied by, a need for physical strength. After all, Reggie’s true power is ultimately not physical. Reggie is a representation of both Cleveland’s strength and lack of strength. His intentionally one-sided muscular development not only suggests Cleveland’s inability to utilize (or even identify) his inner strength, but also indicates a systematic, “scientific” maintenance of an emotional imbalance and instability.
“The Interpreter” is originally thought to be Mr. Dury because of his proficiency with crossword puzzles. In actuality, the interpreter is his son, Joey. The selection emphasizes the ability of children to see things with a clarity and simplicity that becomes lost for adults as they become limited by social paradigms and restrictions. In fact, Mr. Dury at one point admits that his ability with puzzles and symbolism is limited to his crosswords. The loss of this childhood ability is poignantly illustrated by this father-son disparity - it is Mr. Dury that realizes that his son (presumably the child version of himself - "I'm gonna be just like my dad") is the real interpreter. The idea denotes the endurance of important childlike notions in Cleveland's psyche. It also refers to a psychological healing process that addresses the significance of childhood perceptions, and the subsequent development of emotions and coping strategies during childhood.
"Someone whose opinion Cleveland values" turns out to be the shut-in, Mr. Leeds. He is the only tenant who knows of Cleveland's tragedy (the only other part of his psyche from which it has not been completely repressed). Mr. Leeds "has been here forever". He sits in a dark room, surrounded by books, staring at images of war on television. His role is somewhat paternal - he refers to Cleveland as “son” (“don’t become what I have”), and encourages him to “not give up”. He somehow sees everything that’s going on around him in the Cove. He is Cleveland's conscience, his conviction - what some would consider to be functions of “the Soul”. He is the inner voice, the moral compass that guides him. Even his name is significant. But he is the part of the Cove that has been most affected by the sins of mankind and the toxicity of society - "I wanted to believe more than anyone". In what is essentially inner dialogue, he questions aloud whether man should be saved - and Cleveland answers that he should be. In this moment, Cleveland expresses a desire to live - to be healed, and to rebuild the trust to reattach himself with society.
The "someone with no secrets" is Mr. Bubchik, the man who is unaware that his wife reveals his secrets. He represents the undeniable reality of Cleveland's weakness, his shortcomings, and his mortality. This candidness promotes a sense of honesty and comfort, a willingness to accept oneself despite one’s flaws. Mr. Bubchik represents that which Cleveland has no choice but to accept. And he provides Cleveland the opportunity to relieve himself of the guilt that has accompanied the burden of his secret. He cannot forgive himself for that over which he had no control - the inability to save his family – unless he is able to openly share it with himself.
"The Guild” consists of seven women, a group formed to protect a common interest. The number seven is prominent in religion and mythology – “The Seven Divine Women” (in Khasi mythology), “The Seven Sleeping Men” (in Christian mythology), “The Seven Mothers” (in Hindu mythology), “The Seven Virtues”, “The Seven Sacraments”, and so forth. And a group of women is a representation of Cleveland's burgeoning sense of self worth - the empowerment of that which is generally perceived to be weak and undervalued (this is particularly true in many traditional Hispanic cultures which are known to be excessively misogynistic). The first scene of the movie (a clever foreshadowing) shows Cleveland trying to kill a "big, hairy" bug under the sink of a Hispanic family's apartment. In the background, we see the family's daughters brandishing makeshift weapons and squealing in fear of the bug. They make up five of the Guild's sisters. The others include Anna Ran, Vick's sister (who acts more as a wife or mother to him at times), and Young-Soon, who makes an early reference to her sister who married a dentist, and who is invaluable in guiding Cleveland along his journey of self-awakening. The Guild assists Cleveland through their “laying on of hands” in the climactic scene involving Story's healing and his own catharsis. The image illustrates Cleveland's need for emotional attachment (more typically associated with women and prohibited for men in Western culture) in order to connect with what he has repressed. Conversely, these women who provide emotional aid in this scene are armed and readily patrolling the pool's perimeter in the next. It’s a testament to the power of women to both heal and protect.
The group gathers together to “bring strength to the moment” of Story’s (and Cleveland’s) healing and liberation. It is only then that he is able to reach catharsis. He reveals his tragedy to all aspects of himself, and releases the repressed pain and guilt that have kept him isolated in the Cove. It is at this moment that he is able to heal and embrace his hope and faith once again, leaving it safe and appropriate for the angelic Story to return to the Blue World on the wings of the Great Eatlon. Presumably, God’s angel has fulfilled her task to save a man – indeed, all of mankind (she is the Madam Narf) - and returned to heaven.
Shyamalan has called this his most personal film - an especially significant statement, considering how personal all of his stories have been. In fact, he has referred to them as his “children”. Criticism of “The Village” stripped him of his credibility for his prior three great and well-received productions. So he cast himself as the writer whose inspiration by the Story helps him escape his doubt and heal his faith. Is “The Lady in the Water”, then, the “story” of his healing? Or is it the story that healed him? Or is it both?
This man is portrayed by many as an egomaniac. Yet he has done perhaps the most humble thing imaginable – he’s created a story of amazing depth and value, but he has left it for the viewer to tie together. In this sense, he has created an incredible scenario in which the story is actually critical of the viewer. He writes stories that he would appreciate, and that a select group of the audience (however small) will appreciate. And he allows himself to be bashed for its simplicity and banality by those who can’t appreciate his effort, content that this inability is criticism enough of his critics. Think of this scenario in the context of this movie! It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in entertainment, and I only hope I’ve done it some justice.