`Dark Water' thriller is moody but murky

Movie Reviews

July 08, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Dark Water comes on sensitive, then tries to nail the audience with a series of sucker punches. This fake-feminist thriller hides its sadism under a show of sympathy for its beleaguered heroine.

Jennifer Connelly plays a fragile divorced mother. Under pressure of a custody fight, she finds cheap and leak-plagued rooms two blocks away from a good school on the deteriorating Roosevelt Island apartment complex right off the shore of Manhattan.

At first, the director, Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), mixes moody suspense with spot-on social satire of male pseudo-efficiency. He surrounds Connelly with laser-sharp thumbnail sketches of distant or oblivious men - the combative ex-husband (Dougray Scott), the grouchy building super (Pete Postlethwaite), the willfully upbeat apartment manager (John C. Reilly) who refers to the ninth of 10 floors as "the lower penthouse level." Salles wrings a rueful laugh or two when Connelly or her daughter call these guys to task or put them down. Before Tim Roth enters the picture as Connelly's lawyer, the only real support she gets is from another woman at a job interview.

Connelly is uncanny at portraying a bruised sensibility. Super-slender here, she's such an emotional tuning fork you can tell the second when she gets bad vibes or starts to come down with a migraine. (For this movie, Connelly may win the credit she deserved for The House of Sand and Fog.)

But Salles stupidly signals from the start that her character's fear of parent-child separation stems from her traumatic abandonment as a child. When Salles adds a subplot about her daughter's dangerous imaginary friend, which intersects with a ghost story about another abandoned girl, it begins to feel as if the director and his writer, Rafael Yglesias, are simply piling on.

Roman Polanski in Repulsion showed that you could make an eerie horror film by turning an apartment into a torture chamber for a troubled woman. But Salles lacks Polanski's knack for airtight construction and stylized claustrophobia. When Connelly's prescription-drug-fueled nightmares collide with haunted visions and flashbacks, the movie descends into a hopeless miasma. In one of many decisions that make the final scenes ambiguous (positive spin) or incomprehensible (negative spin), Salles casts the same young actress (Perla Haney-Jardine) to play the poor abused kid upstairs and Connelly as a young girl. Is murk any more enlightening or entertaining just because it's deliberate?

Like The Ring movies, Dark Water derives from a Japanese original (Honogurai mizu no soko kara). Like The Ring 2, it vies for the title of the dankest movie ever made. Foul liquids overflow every other frame; even the rain seems brackish. It's as if Salles thought that he could cover all the problems of the plot with one simple direction: "Just Add Water."

Dark Water

Starring Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Tim Roth, Dougray Scott, and Ariel Gade

Directed by Walter Salles

Released by Buena Vista

Rated PG-13

Time 105 minutes

SUN SCORE ** (2 STARS)

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