Dark Water

There’s a surprisingly dark tone to Hollywood’s latest blockbusters, and this season’s fare has a decidedly somber undercurrent. Even the Star Wars franchise, typically reliable as gleeful brain candy, took a turn toward the bleak. For this reason alone, Dark Water, a handsome and modest ghost story, may have trouble distinguishing itself from the summer’s more grandiose releases.

Attracting the talents of director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and featuring a cast of highly respected actors, Dark Water boasts a surprising pedigree for a remake of a Japanese horror film.

Jennifer Connelly gives an impressively textured performance as Dahlia, an emotionally shattered mother who fights to retain custody of daughter Ceci after a nasty divorce. Financially strapped with no friends or family nearby, the two move to a sinister building on New York’s Roosevelt Island. Faulty elevators with blackened buttons, a leering building manager and dank cinderblock hallways lend to the film’s eerie, atmospheric dread. This is urban living at its most brutal: cold, joyless and isolating.

Instead of pushing the usual supernatural fright flick buttons, for the film’s first hour Salles focuses more on Dahlia’s struggle to reconcile her painful past with an uncertain future. Not only must Dahlia deal with the disheartening day-to-day problems of living in a community that provides neither comfort nor security, she must also contend with Ceci’s sudden preoccupation with a malicious imaginary friend and a strange relentless leak from the abandoned apartment above. The ominous stain that spreads across Dahlia’s bedroom ceiling is one of the film’s most unsettling images. It festers and blackens like a rotting wound, dribbling dark water onto the bed below.

Struggling with childhood demons and afflicted by migraines, Connelly gives Dahlia a high-strung vulnerability but avoids self-pity. It’s a superb balancing act and beyond the ability of most Hollywood actresses. The character is wounded, but uncompromising in her love for her daughter. She fights to hold onto her sanity while second-guessing every decision she makes. Are there ghosts in the building or is her ex-husband trying to drive her crazy?

The supporting cast features an impressive list of Oscar nominated actors adding weight and zest to the proceedings. Pete Postlethwaite is both creepy and pathetic as the building’s foul-tempered super. John C. Reilly is the sleazy realtor who manipulates Dahlia into renting the apartment then ignores its ever-escalating problems. Tim Roth rounds out the cast as a low-rent lawyer who displays unexpected virtues. In a film where nearly every character conceals some sort of secret, the cast provides an edgy and convincing subtext.

Unfortunately, as the tone turns more chilling and the red herrings give way to traditional horror conventions, Dark Water falls victim to familiarity. We’ve already seen many of its supernatural elements in other films — the innocent child who talks to disgruntled spirits, a mysterious death involving water — and the climax arrives with overwrought gimmicks and predictable drama. It’s no coincidence that the Japanese original was directed by Hideo Nakata, the creator of The Ring.

As a horror film, Dark Water is too predictable to deliver any surprising shocks or scares. As a psychological thriller, however, it stands out. The movie’s greatest strength lies in Salles’ impeccable sense of craft and taste. He digs deep into the psyche of rage and abandonment and comes up with an unsettling creepiness that lingers long after the film has ended.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].

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