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Alex Stroup, editor

Dark Water

Jennifer Connelly faces chilled plumbing in new flick

Friday, July 8, 2005
by Alex Stroup, MousePlanet editor

Walter Salles may very well be the best director you've never heard of. Brazil's top director has only had a couple films get much play in the United States; in 1998 Central do Brasil earned two Oscar nominations and last year's The Motorcycle Diaries actually won one for Best Original Song. It is with much anticipation that Dark Water marks his Hollywood—and English language—debut. It is also with some trepidation that Dark Water has a Brazilian director making an American remake of a Japanese film—that is a lot of cultural translation going on.

© 2005 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

On the other hand, the movie isn't being advertised as “from award winning director Walter Salles” but rather as “by the author of The Ring.” This, of course, is a little bit of a Hollywood fib. Kôji Suzuki wrote the novel on which the Japanese movie Ringu (1998) was based, which was then adapted into the American movie The Ring. Similarly, Suzuki wrote the novel that was the basis for a Japanese movie that was adapted into Dark Water. The Ring and Dark Water are so many steps from their common source that llamas and giraffes may share a more relevant common ancestor.

Like the giraffe and llama, Dark Water shares certain features with The Ring, but has gone in a different direction. Water is a representation of the sinister, and the innocence of children is the gateway through which the spirit world gain entrance into our world. Unlike The Ring, however, Dark Water is not a particularly scary movie. It is more about psychological suspense than feeling real danger.

Jennifer Connelly plays Dahlia, a recently separated mother struggling to establish a life that will prevent her husband from gaining custody of their daughter, Ceci. Establishing scenes show that Dahlia grew up with very inadequate parents and her husband (Dougray Scott) indicates she may have some continuing mental problems to deal with.

© 2005 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

Forced to budgetary compromises, Dahlia and Ceci move into a run-down apartment building on New York City's Roosevelt Island (link). The selection of Roosevelt Island as the setting for Dark Water is inspired, with the scenery the island provides Salles and cinematographer Daniel Rezende (brought from Brazil by Salles) create a wonderful feeling of isolation without having to leave New York City. The giant apartment blocks, built in the 1960s in the “Brutalist Style” (this is actually true, though most in the audience thought it was a joke when John C. Reilly's character said this), have no personality and on screen seem the perfect place for misdeeds and a thinning of the wall between the worlds of the living and the dead.

The hints that something is odd begin almost immediately. Though immediately displeased by the building and apartment, something changes Ceci's attitude so that she practically begs Dahlia to live there. Shortly after moving in water begins to leak through the ceiling and faucets and feet can be heard from the apartment upstairs. Of course, it turns out that the apartment had been abandoned by its tenants several months earlier.

If you've seen Salles other movies, then you understand that a common element is that he doesn't go anywhere in a hurry. Scenes play out naturally, which means a lot of silence or just doing nothing. At first this seems like a good thing for Dark Water since suspense movies are always served well by time for the audience to imagine. Unfortunately it quickly begins to feel that Salles is moving things along so slowly not to build suspense but rather because there isn't a whole lot to work with.

© 2005 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

One of the stabs at genius is that the entire movie can be read in two ways. You can take it at face value and go with the supernatural story that is presented or believe that something even more sinister is going on. That Dahlia actually does have mental problems, that the events of the movie are a combination of real world events and her internal battle against ghosts and shadows from her past, is actually much more interesting. Neither Salles nor the screenplay, sadly, give sufficient meat to this idea that it is interesting to argue, but the need to maintain the possibility of the latter keeps the story from diving headfirst into the former. The result is a lot of built-up tension with relatively little release or payoff.

It is sad that a movie this well shot and so well acted just isn't compelling. Jennifer Connelly continues to cement her serious acting credentials with a layered performance. John C. Reilly's smooth-talking apartment agent steals the few scenes in which he appears, and even 6-year-old Ariel Gade does a good job of avoiding precocious cuteness (she's extremely cute, but not through acting like an adult trapped in a young body).

Dark Water is worth seeing, though more so on DVD than in the theater—but the restrictions of a PG-13 rating and not committing completely to the supernatural keep the movie from being what it could have been. Do not go into it expecting the scariness of The Ring; that isn't even what is attempted. For parents, the movie is definitely more intense than an R.L. Stein adaptation, but the PG-13 rating doesn't seem inappropriate with very little violence, sexuality, or swearing; it is probably a good candidate for pre-screening.

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


Dark Water is a Touchstone Pictures release.


Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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