DARK WATER (Walter Salles, 2005)
In DARK WATER Jennifer Connelly plays Dahlia, a depressive mother in the midst of a contentious break-up with her husband. She wants to find an affordable place to live and a good school for her daughter Ceci while remaining close to Manhattan. Dahlia locates such a place across the river on Roosevelt Island. The apartment isn’t anything fancy, but it fits in her limited budget and is near an excellent school. The new home comes with its share of problems, though. Ceci develops an imaginary friend who lives in their building and insists she is real. The apartment ceiling has a large spot of water damage that won’t seem to go away despite the repairs made.
DARK WATER is a bid for mainstream Hollywood success for director Walter Salles, whose credits include the South American films CENTRAL STATION and THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, and Jennifer Connelly, who has favored acting in smaller, grittier films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. Their independent sensibilities carry over to DARK WATER, which is more of a psychological thriller and character study than a horror film. Salles paces the film deliberately, like the slow but steady leak that stains Dahlia’s ceiling. He uses expressionism to convey her state of mind. The film is painted in dark, drab colors, and rain falls constantly and oppressively so that the dampness and smell of mildew is almost tangible. (Considering most movie characters reside in spacious lofts that exceed their economic strength, Dahlia’s apartment in the dank building is unusually accurate.)
Connelly brings the intensity that marks her performances. She does superior work creating a woman struggling to be a good mother while feeling like she’s falling to pieces. The supporting cast is equally adept. John C. Reilly lightens the dreariness with his very funny turn as a sleazy real estate agent. Pete Postlethwaite’s maintenance man is creepy and amusing, and as Dahlia’s lawyer working out of his car, Tim Roth makes it hard to determine if his character is on the up-and-up.
The mystery regarding the supporting characters—are they as insidious as they might appear—adds the uncertainty necessary to bolster a story that otherwise lacks much surprise. Dahlia has trouble trusting others and sometimes herself. Salles’ great stroke is showing instances when characters are lying to her but she doesn’t know it, which gives legitimacy to Dahlia’s confusion and paranoia. DARK WATER is a remake of a J-horror film, so the themes and plot devices aren’t exactly fresh, especially to those who have seen the THE RING, THE GRUDGE, or other films of their ilk. Salles’ formal skill and Connelly’s rigorous performance enhance the genre’s familiar elements, turning DARK WATER into a compelling examination of the stress involved with parenting.
(A shorter version of this review first aired on the July 19, 2005 NOW PLAYING)