Jennifer Connelly is not interested in being a Barbie doll pin-up girl or the recurring favorite of romantic comedies. She tends to gravitate towards disturbed characters trying to find their way through the muddled messes of life. In her career, she has mastered the art of playing a heroin junkie (Requiem For A Dream), sex-deprived wife of a schizophrenic (A Beautiful Mind), and homeless alcoholic (House Of Sand & Fog). If you are looking for a movie to brighten her image and offer something more uplifting, Dark Water isn’t it; but it does solidify her place in Hollywood as the anti-Meg Ryan.
Dahlia (Connelly) is not experiencing the high point of her life. Recently divorced from unfaithful husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) and fighting a brutal custody battle, she searches for a new place to live with her five-year-old daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). Since most people living in New York City can only afford an apartment the size of an oyster with a similarly unpleasant scent, she looks to nearby location, Roosevelt Island. Upon entering a potential building, she notices cracks in the walls and puddles of water scattered across the floor. Managing agent Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) does his best to pitch the place as a beacon of beauty, but there is no mistaking a dump for a palace. Dahlia is ready to catch the next bus out of town but Ceci curiously wants to live in that rundown building, and her request is reluctantly obliged.
It doesn’t take long to realize their residency in Apartment 9F is problematic. There is a massive leak on Ceci’s ceiling alongside her bed, as hideous and expanding as Jared Leto’s arm wound in Requiem For A Dream. Superintendent Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) has no immediate interest in fixing it, and he and Mr. Murray delegate the task back and forth without resolve. The leak keeps growing, with dark water creeping out resembling black coffee. Dahlia goes to the sink for a drink of water, and finds her glass full of the same murky water, with a clumpy cluster of hair as an added bonus. Gross.
If bad plumbing isn’t enough of a setback, Dahlia learns that her daughter has a new friend who happens to be a bad influence. This newfound friend, Natasha, tells Ceci forbidden secrets, encourages naughty behavior, and sings creepy renditions of “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. The problem is that nobody else can see Natasha, and she has the same name as a girl who has mysteriously vanished from their apartment building. Dahlia starts to wonder if her child is a complete wacko, but she is so detached from reality herself that the line between truth and fantasy has become an endlessly hazy blur. Those are some great genes to be passing around.
As a horror movie, Dark Water misses the mark. It is difficult to scare audiences with the same regurgitated premise of supernatural shenanigans, and the movie doesn’t offer anything new to elicit thrills. A leaky faucet, a creaking staircase, and a freaky vengeful child are all fairly routine ventures for the genre. Although it fails to induce shrieks, the movie works surprisingly well as a psychological thriller. The acting is fantastic and the chemistry between all of the characters is perfect, notably in scenes with Connelly and Gade. They are entirely believable as mother and daughter, and you feel the strong connection between them. It is refreshing to see a very young actress emote raw talent and not survive on vacant lisping cuteness alone.
Dark Water will not break new ground or cause an outbreak of goosebumps, but its strong ensemble cast and mesmerizing atmospheric tones elevate the film above standard horror fare. In less competent hands the film would have been a complete failure, but director Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries) is great at portraying character dynamics and relationships. However, an overflowing toilet is not frightening even in the most talented of hands. Where is a good exorcist plumber when you need one?