THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"DARK WATER"

In Dark Water, Jennifer Connelly plays Dahlia, a young woman who was abandoned as a child by her drug-addicted mother. This betrayal has left her permanently scarred and determined to be a better mother to daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). Dahlia is in the middle of a tumultuous divorce from husband Kyle (Dougray Scott), following his affair. Things have gotten so bad that they are seeing professional mediators to work out custody issues. When Kyle announces that heís moving to Jersey City, Dahlia more or less has to move too so that Ceci can more easily spend time with both parents.

Because sheís suddenly hard up for money, Dahlia rents an apartment in a dingy building complex on Roosevelt Island. The landlord is Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly), who seems nice enough but clearly exaggerates the apartmentís qualities in order to rent it. No sooner do Dahlia and Ceci move in than the ceiling starts leaking filthy black water. The superintendent, Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite), is less than sympathetic about the problem. He blames it on teenage punks breaking into an upstairs apartment and letting the faucets run as a prank. Dahlia eventually goes upstairs to investigate and finds the place flooded with water. She also experiences a hallucination while there.

Strange things continue to happen: No matter how many times the ceiling is fixed, water continues to drip. Ceci starts talking to a friend, who may or may not be imaginary. Dahlia becomes plagued with bad dreams that seem to have some indecipherable meaning. The hallucinations continue, especially whenever that black water appears (which is often). Dahlia is not sure whether sheís losing her mind or whether Kyle is trying to make her think sheís losing her mind. She hires a lawyer named Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth) to help her fight for custody when Kyle threatens to take her to court.

Dark Water is being sold as though itís another Asian-horror remake, like The Ring or The Grudge. The truth is that people who go to it expecting another trippy cinematic freak-out will likely be disappointed. Conversely, people who like a good emotional drama might bypass the film altogether, incorrectly believing that itís a shlocky horror flick. The truth is that Dark Water is about an emotionally damaged woman who is healed through a supernatural event. There are moments scattered throughout that are designed to make you jump or to elicit a gasp (especially in the last 20 minutes), but the film doesnít rely heavily on scare beats. Director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) are far more interested in telling the story of Dahliaís journey, which ends with an usual kind of redemption. Itís not spelled out; you really have to think about it, but thereís a definite meaning to the ending that is as touching as it is unanticipated.

At some level, Dark Water is also about lies. If you watch carefully, you will realize that most of the characters lie to Dahlia at various points. Murray lies about the apartmentís qualities, Veeck lies about a childís backpack that Ceci finds, Platzer lies about going to the movies with his family, and Kyle lies about his affair. Some of these lies are malicious, others innocuous. The final revelation of the plot is more meaningful when you realize that Dahlia does not want to be a liar as well. Her willingness to tell the truth sets her apart and ultimately allows her to compensate for her troubled past.

Itís the ambitious nature of the story that has drawn such a talented cast. Jennifer Connelly gives another really interesting performance, coming on the heels of House of Sand and Fog, Requiem for a Dream, and her Oscar-winning turn in A Beautiful Mind. These roles show a real ability to play women who remain strong despite their vulnerabilities. Connelly draws us in, keeping us focused on Dahlia even amidst the elements of horror. John C. Reilly and Pete Postlethwaite (The Usual Suspects) are, of course, first-rate character actors who add flavor and mystery to the movie. It isnít initially clear whether Murray and Veeck are malicious or benign, which adds to the suspense. The actors have limited screen time but do a lot with it.

I liked and admired Dark Water because it deals with issues that are rarely touched on in the supernatural genre. The filmmakers obviously recognize the potential of scary movies to be more than mere thrill rides. Thereís a nice flow here because the movie lets the story evolve rather than cramming in regularly timed jolts. Itís eerie, yet the eeriness is used in service of a theme. Dark Water is much more ambitious and classy than the advertising would lead you to believe. For the film to be written off as generic horror junk would be unfortunate; it deserves to find an audience of discerning moviegoers.

( out of four)


Dark Water is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, frightening sequences, disturbing images and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.

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