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Dark Water (2005)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/16/05 17:15:18

"Smarter, creepier, and better than expected."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

So I’m sitting in my local multiplex, watching the Hollywood remake of the Japanese horror hit “Dark Water,” when one of the kids behind me leans over to his pal and gripes, “This is not how ‘The Ring’ was, man!” Very true. A lot of people are not going to like “Dark Water” for the same reason my weekend crowd didn’t seem to like it that much: because it’s a thriller more concerned with character, emotion, and depth than with actually scaring you. Yes, there is the occasional jump-scare here, but overall, this movie’s lacking in “booga booga” frights. It’s a movie that asks you to think and feel, and some folks just don’t want to see such stuff.

I do, however, and I hope you do, too. I welcomed this exercise of a ghost tale; while it was chilling me, it was also challenging me, asking me to examine the lives of the main characters, to ask what’s going on here, to understand the connection between the plot and the underlying ideas regarding divorce anxiety.

(Weekend multiplex crowds, of course, stopped reading once I mentioned the word “challenging.” You’re still here, though, so I have high hopes.)

The story concerns Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), newly divorced and looking for a cheap home for her and her daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade). They stumble across a rundown apartment complex on New York’s Roosevelt Island, and while the place is a dreary mess and the landlord (John C. Reilly) is a bit of a creep, Ceci insists on staying, and stay they do. After all, it’s only two blocks from one of the city’s best schools, and hey, the price is right.

But what to do about that pesky water stain on the bedroom ceiling, the one that keeps getting bigger and bigger, finally breaking out into a leak? And what to do about the story of the tenants of apartment 10-F, right above them, who just up and left some time ago? And what to do about Ceci’s new imaginary friend, a little girl who shares the same name with the missing girl from 10-F?

Not yet having either seen the original film (which has now shot up to the top of my list) or read the manga on which this American version is based, I can’t offer any comparisons. What I can tell you is that director Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Behind the Sun”) and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (“From Hell”) have put together a noteworthy ghost story, one that resonates with deeper meanings. The chaos brought on by the hauntings leaves Dahlia questioning her abilities as a single mother. Paranoia sets in: is her ex involved in any of this, perhaps trying to drive her crazy and thus win custody of Ceci? Meanwhile, Ceci’s imaginary friend problems seem to mirror the general anxieties of a child of divorce who feels lost in the shuffle.

Which is the key to the story here. The ghostly doings and Ceci’s own misadventures all tie into fears of getting left behind when a family falls apart. The mystery of 10-F (J-horror movies and their remakes are bound to mysteries like this, don’tcha think?) spells this out for us in greater detail than the Dahlia/Ceci story, although both hit quite hard. (To pound it all home, we also get flashbacks of Dahlia’s own troubled childhood.)

This makes “Dark Water” not sound like much of a horror movie, and while it’s not your typical screamer, it does offer plenty of steady chills. Credit for this goes squarely to cinematographer Affonso Beato, as well as the art direction team; all involved soak the movie in an inescapable sense of dreariness. Not only is it always raining here on Roosevelt Island, but the apartment complex is overwhelmingly bleak. This is how you set the proper tone, people.

The filmmakers then finish the job by loading the story with plenty of nice, little touches. Yglesias shows a sharp ear for dialogue and character, especially in the way he’s constantly allowing characters to lie to one another. Watch as Reilly’s character tries to beef himself up by telling Dahlia that he’s with another client, when he’s actually alone. Watch as Dahlia’s lawyer (Tim Roth) gets her off the phone by telling her he’s with his family, when, in fact, he has none. These are not lies created to hurt or overly manipulate. They’re merely the kind of white lies told every day by everybody. There’s a deep knowledge of human nature that helps craft stronger, more believable characters.

Which is what helps make “Dark Water” far better than expected. Just think of the supporting cast: Reilly, Roth, Pete Postlethwaite, Dougray Scott, Camryn Manheim. What could have been throwaway roles are instead given to dependable actors of the highest quality, thus improving an already impressive story. (As for the leads, Connelly is in top form, while Gade is far more impressive than other child stars her age.)

Salles, meanwhile, provides a careful balance between frights and character study, opting to let the tale play out on its own terms; instead of rushing from scare to scare, he lets the scares come naturally, usually a result of the unyielding dark mood of the piece. This leaves “Dark Water” as a completely satisfying ghost experience. It’s smart, it’s spooky, it’s a keeper.

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