Cerebral thriller "Dark Water" drips suspense and atmosphere
Seattle Times movie critic
Walter Salles' moody thriller "Dark Water" doesn't go for easy scares; if you go expecting to be jolted out of your seat, you may be disappointed.
In one scene, a wan young mother named Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) stares into the bathroom mirror in her grim New York apartment, where the light is always grayish and the bruised-looking ceilings drip hideously brown water, like an open wound. We've seen lots of Hollywood horror movies, so we know what happens when somebody stares into a bathroom mirror: Some creepy face turns up behind her in that mirror, right? Wrong — in this movie, and in Connelly's delicate portrayal of terror, the fear is not so literal; she's not afraid of what she sees but of what she doesn't see.
"Dark Water" is another American horror film with Japanese ancestry, like "The Grudge" and "The Ring." The Japanese original, directed by Hideo Nakata (who also directed the original Japanese "Ring," which, take my word for it, is much creepier and scarier than the Naomi Watts version), screened at the Seattle International Film Festival a couple of years back and remains vivid in my memory.
The new film is a mostly faithful adaptation of a scary little story: A mother and her young daughter, needing to save money as the mother negotiates an unhappy divorce, move into a depressing, dark apartment. Soon the two begin to notice strange leaks in the walls and elevator, odd goings-on in the supposedly empty apartment directly above and an unwelcome new addition to the family: a ghostlike imaginary friend for the daughter.
Salles and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias have added some backstory — Dahlia is haunted by memories of an abusive past — and some additional characters. John C. Reilly plays a schmoozy building manager who brings some welcome humor to the story; hurrying Dahlia and daughter Ceci through the apartment, he points out its features like a true salesman. The wobbly looking foldout table in the kitchen becomes "a country eat-in dining room"; the forbidding edifice of a building, made "in the Brutalist style," is "a utopian village."
Tim Roth is Dahlia's divorce lawyer, who isn't quite what he seems. (Many things in this movie aren't what they seem — and many are, just to keep us off-track.) And Pete Postlethwaite is effectively enigmatic as the building's janitor, who appears to know more than he's saying about Apartment 10F.
But the center of the movie is Connelly and young Ariel Gade, who plays Ceci (she's about 6). The two have a charming, affectionate mother/daughter bond, whose flip side is fear. Dahlia, who's still devastated by the breakup of her marriage (she still wears her wedding band), is most haunted by the idea that she might lose her daughter; that her angry soon-to-be-ex-husband (Dougray Scott) might take the child. Is he trying to drive her crazy, so that she'll give up Ceci? Are the drugs she takes for her crushing migraine headaches partially responsible for the terrible things she's seeing? Or did something truly horrible happen in that dank building, whose hallways have all the cheer of a prison barracks?
These questions are answered, not always gracefully: Roth gets saddled with an explanatory speech that feels like too much. But Salles and director of photography Affonso Beato ("Ghost World," "All About My Mother") create a palpable sense of dread and a stylish, monochromatic atmosphere, in muddy yellows, browns and grays, in a Manhattan where it's always raining. (In mood, the film is reminiscent of "The Sixth Sense" and, to a lesser extent, "Rosemary's Baby.")
As a would-be summer blockbuster, "Dark Water" won't be to everyone's tastes; its chills are subtle and its subject matter dark and serious. But Connelly grabs her role and squeezes it tight, using a thin little voice and frightened eyes that only soften when she looks at her daughter. She makes you believe this story, even to its water-drenched finale; an adoring mother willing to place herself between her child and danger, however unknown.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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