From the start, odd occurrences characterize life in the new apartment for Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) and her five-year-old daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade). A leak above the bedroom ceiling disrupts their first night, the ugly stain ruining the fresh paint. The kitchen faucet coughs up strands of human hair along with bursts of bilious black water. The elevator buttons malfunction, corrupted by the dampness afflicting the building during a period of unusually heavy rain; the washing machines in the decrepit basement quit in the middle of their cycles, producing a sodden mess; and resident delinquents repeatedly flood an abandoned flat upstairs with filthy effluent.
Dark Water, a ghost story that seeps into the cracks of the audience's consciousness, makes inventive use of the ineluctable nature of the elixir of life...or as Shakespeare's gravedigger put it, "the sore decayer of your whoreson dead body." Water is everywhere, pouring from the perpetually overcast sky, inundating Dahlia's recurring nightmares, dripping down the walls and halls of the dreary high-rise on Roosevelt Island where Dahlia has sought refuge from a broken marriage. Indeed, by movie's end, when Dahlia's estranged husband, Kyle (Dougray Scott), sheds a tear, viewers may wonder if the filmmakers are being sentimental, ironic or macabre.
More than most films, Dark Water is a collaborative effort. Bill Mechanic and his co-producers secured the rights to the Japanese original, written by Kôji Suzuki and directed by Hideo Nakata (the Ring team), even before it opened in Asia. They then signed on writer Rafael Yglesias (Death and the Maiden) and director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), with the intent of transforming an adrenaline-laced ghost story into a character-driven psychological thriller. The result is somewhat, well, watery, with one genre giving way to another as the film changes course just when it seems to have reached resolution. On the other hand, Dark Water generates enough atmosphere to sustain suspense to the end, and its superb cast is entertaining throughout.
Connelly is especially convincing as the woman scorned, rejected by Kyle because she is mentally unstable, a claim that bears some truth if we are to believe the flashbacks revealing her difficult relationship with her drug-addled mother. Dahlia is harried, resentful and a little paranoid, but she never seems truly delusional, although the film asks us to consider this possibility for most of its length-a problem with the script and direction more than Connelly's acting.
Salles and Yglesias manage to deflect doubts about their heroine with the amusing antics of supporting characters, three New York types played for comic relief. John C. Reilly is remarkable as Murray the broker, the low-rent real-estate manager who likes to blow his commissions at the off-track betting windows. Pete Postlethwaite is perfect as Veeck the superintendent, the dissipated janitor with no skills or wit other than a thorough knowledge of union regulations. Tim Roth plays Jeff Platzer, Dahlia's eccentric lawyer who, for reasons we never learn, works out of his SUV and invents a nonexistent family to buy himself private time from his needy clients.
Both admirers of Roman Polanski, Salles and Yglesias owe a debt to the director of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant, incorporating a number of his bits into Dark Water. The dingy apartment building on Roosevelt Island (in reality, a lovely little neighborhood with spectacular views of the city) is an amalgam of Catherine Deneuve's killing space in London, Mia Farrow's satanic apartment in the Dakota, and Polanski's haunted bachelor pad in Paris. Affonso Beato's desaturated cinematography and designer Thérèse DePrez's interiors also seem, if not derivative, certainly referential. Even the filmmakers' stock characters appear to be modeled on the eccentrics that populate Polanski's creepy thrillers.
Borrowing from a master like Polanski isn't a bad thing, and Dark Water will appeal to viewers who have enjoyed his work. Salles is clumsier at conjoining madness with the paranormal, and he is too concerned with sending the audience on its way feeling good about the fate of young Ceci. But he has made a moody, quirky movie that, although flawed, is worth a walk to the theatre in a gentle rain.