A rush of images at the moment of death - comforting, confusing - creating a story where the arc of redemption offers the possibility to 'make right' some terrible wrong.
Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti), middle-aged maintenance man and general on-site manager of The Cove apartment building, leaves his bungalow in the middle of the night to investigate a disturbance. His flashlight cuts a path through the darkness, leading him down to the edges of the large, womb-shaped swimming pool at the centre of the courtyard. He expects to find some everyday scene of disobedience; perhaps teenagers taking a clandestine dip after dark, or a stray animal that has fallen into the water and can't get out.
After wading through the pool and finding nothing, at least out of the ordinary, he climbs out and begins his trek back to the bungalow, to continue this none-existence of work and sleep; the televised news coverage of the war in Iraq offering the only reminder of the world outside The Cove.
Suddenly, his feet slip out from under him. His body, awkward and heavy, hits the deck then rolls, lifelessly, into the water with a punch. The hard splash sends millions of tiny little air-bubbles circling around him, like a chorus of tears, or the blown seeds from a Taraxacum head. The last gasps of breath, for help or forgiveness, exhale, before the blackness of the water consumes him.
Everything that follows can be seen as fiction within a fiction. This man, who has nothing but his memories and his feelings of guilt, grief and despair, imagines, at the precise moment of death, a fantasy of how things could have been.
A story of redemption, where everyone, no matter how spent or helpless, holds a spark of something within them, capable of bringing the dead back to life. A story where the success of this ideal rests on the completion of a good deed; a good deed - no matter how unreal or informed by fantasy and fiction it might be - that allows this character to come to terms with the greatest tragedy; the murder of his family.
As his body drains of air and he sinks beneath the surface of the pool, this fantasy existence - where mythical creatures with outlandish names and water nymph's in need of protection - suggests the possibility for something good to come from a world no longer capable of acts of charitable kindness. In imagining this story in which the persistence, perseverance and pure good faith of his character is used to save the life an innocent being - a symbol for the loved ones he lost, when, on a night like this, he left his home to attend to a professional matter, and returned to a lifetime of devastation - Cleveland is now relieved of his burden of existence.
Drawing his final breath, this character, reflected on the water, but also from the same perspective, beneath the water, finds forgiveness in the closing shot of the film.
In previous films by Shyamalan, water plays an important part in deciding the fate of his characters; either leaving them weak or unable to achieve their full potential, like in Unbreakable (2000), or presenting something that can be used to overcome a particular obstacle or foe, like in Signs (2002). In Lady in the Water, the significance of the water is generally more straightforward, having something to do with the obvious spiritual notions of purification. The 'story' of the film literally emerges from the water as something good and pure; something we can believe in.
In this single interpretation of the film (one of several readings of a work that demands an audience with the patience to play nice with its heart on sleeve idealism and occasional shifts into sentimentality to appreciate the greater risks being taken, both with narrative and form) the water has the ability to wash away our mistakes, to cleanse and to clean; like tears of happiness or regret.