Dark Water (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Dark Water is the latest in the gaggle of Japanese ghost stories turned into major American motion pictures. The obvious virtue of this effort is that, unlike its predecessors The Ring and The Grudge, it makes sense. The problem is that director Walter Salles confuses atmosphere with torpor. Dark Water has plenty of creepy moments, but few scares, and it becomes bogged down in setup. The payoff is also a little disappointing in that it mines familiar territory, offering little that's original or surprising.

If there's something to praise about Dark Water, it's the excellence of the cast. The performances range from solid to superb, and there's no sense that anyone believes they are slumming. Unfortunately, it's within the realm of possibility that audience members are going to fall asleep and miss some of this acting. Salles allows things to unfold gradually, but this slow progression results in a loss of energy. Dark Water takes place in a perpetual state of gloom. Even though this is New York City, not Seattle, it's always raining, and the sun seems to have taken a vacation. Dark Water is glum, and occasionally takes itself too seriously. But it's never really scary. At least the director refrains from throwing irrelevant "boo!" moments out there to cause viewers to jump out of their seats.

Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) is in the midst of a custody battle with her ex-husband, Kyle (Dougray Scott). She and her young daughter, Ceci (Ariel Grade) have moved into a ninth-floor apartment on Roosevelt Island because (1) it's only two blocks from one of the best schools in the New York/New Jersey metro area, and (2) it's affordable. Kyle, believing Dahlia to be an unfit mother, wants sole custody of his daughter. Meanwhile, there's a problem with Dahlia and Ceci's new home: a leak in the bedroom ceiling drips black water. The building handyman (Pete Postlethwaite) is unwilling to fix it, and Dahlia wonders if the leak may be the result of activities in the apartment above hers. While Dahlia is trying to get her ceiling fixed, Ceci begins to converse with an imaginary friend who may not be so imaginary.

Shades of Hide and Seek? Two horror-thrillers in one year with the same premise try the patience, especially when it's not that great a premise. Ultimately, though, Dark Water is closer to The Ring in content than to the DeNiro flick. That's not a surprise, since the Japanese source material was written by the director of Ringu, Ringu 2, and The Ring 2 from a novel by the man who wrote the book Ringu. Dark Water is slower moving than The Ring, but no less atmospheric and a lot less convoluted. There are, however, a couple of subplots that go nowhere (the screenplay could have been tightened up considerably by judicious trimming), and the ending is familiar.

Jennifer Connelly is wonderful, playing a woman teetering on the brink of sanity. There are times during this film when you realize she could have done a Hitchcock picture without missing a beat (although Hitchcock preferred blondes). Relative newcomer Ariel Grade may be the latest child star "find." Despite her young age, her performance is unaffected. John C. Reilly (as the smarmy manager of Dahlia's apartment building) and Tim Roth (as Dahlia's divorce lawyer) have nice supporting turns. Their characters may not be necessary to the overall plot, but they add color and each provides moments of comic relief. A mumbling Pete Postlethwaite is at his strangest; we're supposed to be ill at ease with him, and there's no question that's how things develop.

Director Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), an accomplished filmmaker, is clearly more at home with drama than horror. The most effective aspects of Dark Water are the interactions between mother and daughter, and the scenes depicting Dahlia's struggle with her sanity. There are times when the supernatural elements seem like throw-ins, and the deliberate tone doesn't fit what one expects from a ghost story. This picture doesn't have deep enough currents to succeed as a psychological thriller and, as a ghost story, there are times when it has trouble treading water.

Dark Water (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2005-07-08
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1