Movies are like alchemy. If they were like chemistry, you could add the right ingredients – great actors, a promising director with visual style – and get what you would expect, a good movie. But because movies need some transmutive magic the end result is never obvious. Take for example Dark Water, a movie that, on paper, with stars like Jennifer Connelly and John C Reilly and Tim Roth, and the guy who directed last year’s magnificent The Motorcycle Diaries helming, looks to be a great entry in the neglected genre of horror aimed at a thinking audience. In reality, though, it’s a stupefying bore. Dark Water isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a terrible movie, an actual chore to sit through.
It’s based on a Japanese film, which people tell me is pretty good. I wouldn’t know, not having seen it, but it’s from the guy who brought us Ringu (and this year’s mortifying Ring 2), and it has elements that he seems to be magnetically drawn to – specifically scary dead wet girls. Whatever else this version has changed for American audiences, it’s kept the scary dead wet girl. Well, dead wet girl at any rate.
Jennifer Connelly is just getting a divorce from her husband, and they’re fighting over custody for their only daughter. Needing an apartment right away, Connelly moves with her daughter to Roosevelt Island, a mysterious landmass off the coast of Manhattan accessible by a tram (the Green Goblin messed with it in the first Spider-Man) and the F line subway. I’ve been to Roosevelt Island only once, and that was just in the subway station due to a booze-fueled foul up – and I consider myself a well-traveled New Yorker. I get the impression that most New Yorkers are just as unfamiliar with the island, which makes it a good setting for a spooky story. It’s isolated, it’s weird, it’s unknown.
Connelly deals with John C Reilly, phoning in a “big” performance as a real estate broker or landlord of a big apartment complex on the island. To audiences not familiar with New York real estate the scene where he shows her a shitty apartment while trying to spin every defect may seem humorous, or even silly, but for me this was where the film’s only horror comes in. I’ve been there, looking at the corpse of a giant rat and being assured that means pest control measures are working.
Desperate, Connelly takes the place, even though it has a big leak in the bedroom ceiling. Things start to get sort of weird (and really, only mildly so) when her daughter makes a new imaginary friend and that leak keeps getting worse. Connelly finally investigates, only to find the apartment upstairs empty, sort of spooky in that “my great grandmother’s house is spooky” way, and improbably flooded. All the faucets in the place are running, and the water is at such a level that it should be rushing out from under the front door into the hallway. Oh well.
Also sort of spooky, but not really, is the superintendent, played with an indeterminate accent by Pete Postlethwaite. He explains that the flooding is caused by the bad kids from downstairs, who have broken into the home of this family on vacation. Meanwhile Connelly is suffering from serious migraines, she thinks her husband is trying to drive her nuts to get custody of the child, and that leak just keeps coming back.
Honestly, there’s not a moment in Dark Water that’s even remotely creepy. Part of the problem is that everything that happens in the film is something that will be familiar to most New York City apartment dwellers. Hell, I had a leak in my bedroom ceiling that was so bad that the entire ceiling – literally – collapsed. If you had put a staircase in my room I could have had a duplex. Connelly has weird plumbing issues elsewhere, and a washing machine goes nuts – again, all stuff that just happens in this town every single day. I do think there’s a movie to be made about this stuff, but it’s got to be more in line with Falling Down.
Even as the “scary stuff” ratchets up, director Walter Salles keeps most of it from being really scary by having a lot of it be dreams or possible hallucinations. We’re supposed to be guessing if Connelly is really experiencing this stuff, or if she’s crazy, but we just don’t care, as none of it is excessive enough to get a rise out of us. What happened to the days when walls bled? In Dark Water they get damp. There’s only so many times we can see flooding and experience it as a “horror” moment. It quickly becomes an annoyance.
Connelly, once a curvy beauty, is now much thinner, and in this role she looks positively frail. It works for her, although her character is such a one-note embodiment of exasperation that we start to get resentful. Introduced fairly late in the proceedings, Tim Roth plays a weirdly half-dimensional lawyer who may have the hots for Connelly (well, duh, who wouldn’t?). Usually in movies I despise the shoe-horned in romance, but here I was rooting for it just so that Connelly would have something else to play. But like the horror elements, Salles plays the romance close to his vest. So close, in fact, that it never goes anywhere. If the rest of the film was better I would have appreciated the subtlety of the relationship and the fact that it never quite launches. But here, when I’ve been sitting through an hour and fourteen minutes of plumbing problems, I just want something new to happen.
In The Motorcyle Diaries, Salles showed that he had a keen eye for beauty. Here he shows he has just a keen an eye for decay. I appreciate the rancid and dank landscape he paints, but it seems like his muted color palette and endless rain machine work (this film seems to take place during a time period when New York City is buffeted by typhoons or something) has affected him. Where Diaries is filled with exuberance and life, Dark Water is just as weary as the surroundings. It’s a truly dull film, a movie that just inches along from scene to scene in what may have been intended to be tension but is really plain old torpor.
I don’t think I am spoiling anything by telling you that there is in fact a ghost in the apartment (I honestly don’t know who would be fooled by the “clues” that Connelly is nuts), but she only really manifests in the last ten minutes, when the movie suddenly realizes that it’s almost over and maybe it should do something. The ending of the film is sort of brave, but it also feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. In fact, the whole story could have been very comfortably condensed into 23 minutes and not lost anything.
Excruciating and less scary than a clogged up toilet, Dark Water should be allowed to quietly drain. Don’t worry, Walter and cast – I won’t hold this one against you.
4.0 out of 10