Lady in the Water: A Call for Prophetic Story

M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most spiritual filmmakers of our time, and Lady in the Water is his manifesto.

Lady in the Water is not the strongest of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Its mythology is pedestrian and inconsistent. (For example, how can the lawgivers of the story, the Tartutic, also be the supposedly most evil creatures?) However, the power of Lady in the Water is in its vision of the power of Story to unite a community in heroic action, an action which brings healing to society.

Briefly, Lady in the Water is about an apartment complex maintenance man, Cleveland Heep, and his encounter with a water nymph (or “narf”), who calls herself Story. She appears in the complex’s pool, with a mission to find the vessel whom she is to inspire with a message for mankind. However, she is being hunted by a wolf-like creature made of grass (a “scrunt”), and various members of the apartment complex must find their roles in the story if she is to be saved and returned to her people.

Spoilers ahead: Story finds her vessel, a young writer named Vick Ran, played by Shyamalan himself. Vick started a book, but has set it aside, convinced no one would want to publish his thoughts on world events. The moment he and Story meet, Vick is inspired to resume writing. Story informs him of his future:

A boy, in the midwest of this land, will grow up in a home where your book will be on the shelf and spoken of often. He will grow up with these ideas in his head. He will grow into a great orator. He will speak and his words will be heard throughout this land and throughout the world. This boy will become leader of this country and begin a movement of great change. He will speak of you and your words and your book will be the seeds of many of his great thoughts. They will be the seeds of change.

She also informs him that, because of his book, Vick will be assassinated. The price of sharing his story is his death.

One can see Cleveland and Vick each as prophetic figures – as Moses and Christ, respectively. Cleveland stutters, but his speech is steady when he is with Story. He invites a new community into an ancient narrative, partially received from the water nymph (whom he calls an “angel”) and partially assembled from an old Chinese bedtime story, discerning roles according to the story’s requirements. Vick is the one who writes a new story, continuous with the old, that becomes a book which inspires the world. He gives his life so that the world can be healed. The orator he inspires becomes a new Paul, preaching the word to the nations.

The power of the film is not in the clumsy fantasy – the ugly names, the eccentric characters – but in its statement of faith: a faith, found throughout Shyamalan’s oeuvre, that we are all part of a greater story, whose full plot we cannot see, but which is being providentially guided to its redemptive end. We all have a role to play in this story, but, as one character says in the film, “No one is told who they are.” Our task is to discern our role and play it out to the best of our ability, in the service of sharing the Story. We are all called to be prophets of the healing Word. The call to such prophecy is the call of the film. And when we as viewers pass on the Story, we are participating in the healing of the world.

May we, who are the artists of the True Myth of the Gospel, heed this call to heal the world by telling our Story.

___________

Image credit: IMDB

Author

  • Cole Matson is an actor, producer, and arts administrator. He received his PhD from the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts in 2016.

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1 Comment

  1. says: Leticia Cortina Aracil

    Hello Cole, thank you for your lovely post!

    I am a great admirer of Night Shyamalan’s original work.
    I especially admire his narrative style: how he poses a dazzling extraordinary event in order to unveil the mysterious extraordinary that resides in all what could be called the non-extraordinary or “normal” dimension of the story, which happens to be the authentic story. And one of the things about it that I like the most (which is what most of the regular audience tends to find frustrating) is how he leaves that first layer of the plot unsolved since, after all, is not what the story is about but how the story goes (just a bunch of ‘special effects’ compared with what’s truly going on), in order to give full resolution to the second, where the very texture of life is touched.

    I have to disagree, however, in a couple of your observations here.

    You point out that it is mythological inconsistent that the lawgivers of the story, the Tartutic, are also evil creatures. I don’t find that to be mythically inconsistent at all, it is just a not very Modern way of picturing the “divine things”.
    Gods in narrative myths can be fair and just (cosmic-wise) and cruel and wicked (to the eyes of the ones under their power) at the same time, and both dimensions coexist without them being problematic. In mythology the mortal paradigm of “good-evil” is not always the same as the one of the gods, which generally exists out of such a narrow framing as they are absolute beings. It also can be pointed out that anything that can be inscribed as “divine” holds a certain degree of tremendum that can be legitimately described as “demonic” (as happens often with Yaveh through the Old Testament).
    Personally, I find that the fact that they are seen as evil (lawful evil?) gives the story a lot more of depth and makes it more alive. Something “divine” and powerful, that has the power of punishing and can affect your destiny, is something that should be feared with all justice, and that’s the kind of thing that in a non-academically-sophisticated but lived-in context is often referred as evil.
    Plus, in spite of all his Christian formation, Night Shyamalan is a Hinduist, and that’s a non-modern religion hugely in contact with not moralizing approaches to the complexity of the divine.

    The second thing is when you refer to the not very sophisticate fantasy of the story as “clumsy”. I know what you mean, but I think that it being “clumsy” does a lot on how efficiently the story works.
    It is a children fairy tale (and we have both read enough Tolkien and Lewis to dare to underestimate that), and the story is talking about a kind of wonder that can be lived in an everyday way of living: revealing the ordinary things you are living and doing as something extraordinary and deeply meaningful, not changing them into something else. But, if you make the fantasy more “perfect” or “refined”… To which extend do you really keep that going? Plus, it still remains as a story that you can understand with depth no matter your age?

    In any case, thank you again for sharing your thoughts here, I really like the topic (I haven’t commented here in ages and you made me write!)

    Take care,

    Leticia

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