Title: Dark Water
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Director: Walter Salles
Screenwriters: Kôji Suzuki, Hideo Nakata
Starring: Jennifer Connelly, Ariel Gade, John C. Reilly
Dark Water comes labeled “Japanese horror,” a subgenre with an American reputation that is decidedly mixed, and now leaning toward negative. But the movie, a remake of a Hideo Nakata thriller by Brazilian director Walter Salles, is beholden to none of the genre conventions. Indeed, Dark Water is hardly a horror movie at all; instead, Salles and his screenwriter, Rafael Yglesias, have crafted a surpassingly lovely character drama that exists independent of any genre trappings that happen to tag along. It’s a beautiful, beautiful film, one so expressive that you run out of adjectives to describe it and are reduced to repeating “beautiful” and “lovely” over and over. Rarely do I become this purely involved in a movie.
The first act of Dark Water — roughly forty minutes — is so compelling in its somber, carefully observed ordinariness, that when the ghost story finally rears its head (however gently), it almost seems like an intrusion. We meet Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), a recently divorced mother, whose ex (Dougray Scott) has vowed to wage a bitter fight for custody of their daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). Dahlia and Ceci move into a ramshackle Roosevelt Island apartment building, which is under the questionable auspices of Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly), the landlord, and Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite), the handyman. They settle in, Ceci goes to school, Dahlia looks for a job, all before anything really “happens,” at least in the sense promised by the slam-bang trailer.
Does this make Dark Water sound slow, or meandering, or — God forbid — deceptive? Maybe, but the movie is so intricately constructed that the experience of watching it is nothing less than entrancing. The beauty of the lengthy set-up is that it doesn’t feel like set-up at all (with the possible exception of one scene in which Murray demonstrates the indestructibility of the bathtub plexiglass); it feels like a careful, compelling introduction to two people for whom we immediately feel affection. It’s wonderful, gentle character work, and I got lost in the relationship between Dahlia and Ceci, the meticulously rendered dank New York locale, and the almost impossibly lyrical way the film has of flowing from line to line, shot to shot, scene to scene. We do, all the while, get hints of building suspense and the sense that all will probably not be well for very much longer, but this is more of a general, holistic impression than a byproduct of a foreboding soundtrack and a series of jolts.
I will grant the inevitable assertion that the ghost story that finally gets rolling about an hour into the film is fairly conventional, and its outcome unsurprising. But what I do not think is conventional is the way that Dark Water keeps said ghost story firmly in the background, never letting it take the reins from the film’s human dimension. The plot is never framed in terms of the literal progression of the supernatural storyline, as most thrillers would be (i.e. with the focus trained on the characters reacting to the ghosts, or what have you); instead, we see everything from the perspective of Dahlia’s descent into abject desperation and what may or may not be madness.
I will admit, also, to becoming frustrated with the movie in its final minutes, when I found myself pleading with it to end on a grace note instead of launching into a horror set piece. If Salles had cut the last two minutes, which contain something hideously out-of-place, we would have been dealing with the best film of the year. Had he cut all the sensationalism of the last ten, it gets even better. But if the film does finally succumb to its baser instincts, it gets dragged there kicking and screaming. Even in the last act, Dark Water takes time out for character moments — I love how the kind lawyer (Tim Roth) is set up as a lonely man who lies about having a family (we see him tell Dahlia that he is at the movies with his family, after which he goes back into the theater and takes his seat alone in his row), but this doesn’t necessarily need to have any sort of direct plot-based payoff later on.
On the way there, it turns into one of the year’s greatest technical accomplishments, a virtually flawless audio-visual masterwork. It moves with such ease and grace that you sink into it, lose yourself, forget where you are and what you have to do after the movie ends. It’s helped by a phenomenal turn from Jennifer Connelly, whom I’ve tended to find rather mopey in the past; she’s absolutely perfect here. I urge those who may otherwise be turned off by the “Japanese horror” buzz to give Dark Water a try. You may be surprised.