Anyone who has had to deal with the terrors of a leaky roof or faulty plumbing will find much to raise goosebumps, to cause the averting of the eyes, and, perhaps, to inspire one or two flashbacks to those unfortunate interludes while viewing DARK WATER. And if this were the intent of the makers of this flick, it could be categorized as a bold move in an unusual direction for the thriller genre. Certainly no one who has beheld the spectacle of mold growing on his or her ceiling can say that their fight-or-flight reflex didn’t kick in just a little. Alas, this waterlogged mess was aiming for a more conventional story and missed.
It’s based, RING-like, on a Japanese film co-written by RING co-writer Hideo Nakata, It marks a departure, and not a good one, for its director, Walter Salles, he of the sublime MOTORCYCLE DIARIES and CENTRAL STATION. Something has definitely been lost in translation. Whereas the original had an atmospheric eeriness and off-kilter sense of the surreal in an otherwise normal setting, DARK WATER, while suffused in muddy colors and dim light, is merely damp. Very damp. As in a New York where it always rains, and a rundown apartment on Roosevelt Island where Dahlia (Jennifer Connelley), a soon-to-be single mother has been forced to move with her adorable six-year-old daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade), to shore up her case in the custody fight she’s having with her ex (Dougray Scott). It’s a building that looms institutionally and is populated by the usual sort of peculiar rag-tag set caretakers inherent in rent-controlled properties, including a sleazy building manager (John C. Reilly) and a spooky super (Pete Postlethwaite with an uncertain Slavic accent). Never mind, Ceci is taken with the digs even though there is that nasty water stain on the ceiling of her bedroom, something that Dahlia doesn’t notice until it’s she’s already moved in thanks to some quick thinking by the building manager. The stain isn’t just leaking, it’s also black, viscous, and oozing like a bad flesh wound.
Would that were the worst of it. Soon the tap water is tainted by strands of hair and then by something unwholesomely like raw sewage. Then there are mysterious footsteps coming from the supposedly vacant apartment above Dahlia’s which may or may not be the buildings punk adolescents on a trashing spree. Finally, Ceci strikes up a friendship with an invisible girl named Natasha who, though unseen, is none the less very pushy.
There is much thumping and sloshing, but very little to actually spook anyone other than the ci-mentioned survivors of watery household mishaps. The scariest thing that happens is watching Dahlia run interference between the building manager and the super in an increasingly desperate attempt to get one of them to fix the leak before she and Ceci are forced to don water wings before bedtime. When Dahlia’s eccentric divorce lawyer (Tim Roth), a man who works out of his car, fax machine and all, is brought in, it’s the best thing in the film. Again, not really the point of a thriller, but after a while it’s best to make the best of a bad situation.
Connelly braves more water than any actress since Esther Williams. She deserves kudos for the amount of time she spends dripping wet from the various leaks and floods with which Dahlia must cope in her rent-controlled hellhole of an apartment. And it’s something to be considered when watching her performance. Dahlia is, of course, supposed to be on some sort of medication that makes her drowsy, but the distinct lethargy Connelley affects even during her most impassioned moments of panic might well be attributed, at least in part, to the actress succumbing to incipient hypothermia.
A great deal of nothing happens in DARK WATER before the reveal that isn’t so much a twist as pretty much what everyone was expecting from about five minutes into the proceedings. And while it might have wanted to leave its audience with a haunting sense of sadness, it’s only real impact may be in making people want to find an over-the-counter test for mold when they leave the theater..