When a movie advertised as a suspense/thriller is practically devoid of suspense and contains no thrills, it usually results in a complete failure to entertain. Recent entries in this genre that leap to mind are “Hide and Seek” and “The Grudge.” “Dark Water” is certainly missing those key elements, but because of an attention to psychological detail not found in most genre pictures and a rich supporting cast, it is at least a noble failure. Until the ending, that is.
“Dark Water” has a split personality, as it contains two movies that are frequently at odds with each other. On one hand, there’s the story of Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), a disturbed woman who is haunted by a mother who long ago abandoned her. Now a mom herself, she is involved in a bitter break-up with her husband and the ensuing custody battle over their daughter. Through a series of evocative flashbacks and dream-like sequences, director Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) illustrates that Dahlia’s worst fear is ending up like her own mother.
In the other movie, unemployed Dahlia and daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) move into a dilapidated apartment building on New York City’s Roosevelt Island that is characteristically populated with colorful inhabitants and lots of poor lighting. As black water drips ominously from Dahlia’s ceiling, Ceci develops a dangerous imaginary friend who gets her in trouble at her new school. A talky slumlord (John C. Reilly) and a mysterious handyman (Pete Postlewaite) provide a much-needed jolt to the film’s dreariness and are offered up as possible heavies. But where is the water coming from? Who is little Ceci talking to?
Like “The Ring” before it, “Dark Water” was adapted from both a Japanese novel by Koji Suzuki and a Japanese movie adaptation from director Hideo Nakata. Like “The Ring” before it, “Dark Water” also centers on a hottie mother, her child, and a deadly “ghost girl.” While “The Ring” concentrated on unraveling the ghost’s mystery and spotlighting soon-to-be-iconic horror imagery, Salles tries in vain to get inside the heroine’s mind and create a more personal story. The problem is, he just doesn’t have that much to work with.
Consequently, the first hour of “Dark Water” sloshes along at a languid pace as Salles insists in portraying the tedium of a single, middle-class mom’s struggle in the big city. This underwritten element of the story takes center stage, focusing too much screen time on sympathy for Dahlia’s plight, and it brings the forward motion of the suspense plot (the “other” movie) to a standstill. A scene where a dazed Dahlia lies on her back, letting water slowly drip on her face becomes a metaphor for the entire movie.
The apartment complex becomes the only scary thing in the film, and thinking that people actually live in places like this hit me with more sadness than I could muster anytime else. Kudos to the cinematographers and set designers for rendering with such care the dull colors and dirty wetness that populate it. Every scummy detail of the building is elevated to its most disgusting level.
While it is an admirable attempt on Salles’ part to make a film that contains more poignant moments than any ghost story should, his notion does not infect the whole movie. It only points out with stunning clarity the faults and utter ordinariness of the “suspense side” of the film. His choice for a slow-burn flavor also raises the stakes that “Dark Water” must have a great ending, which it does not. In fact, the ending hits with such a resounding thud that it deflates all the weight Salles had tried so hard to establish.
In the end, “Dark Water” is an oddly decorated hot air balloon, burst by its own yearning to escape the trappings of the horror genre. The conclusion of the film is strictly horror cliché, relying on the standard movie rules of mad poltergeists, and it undermines all the careful buildup that preceded it.