A gothic horror redesigned in modernist architecture, Dark Water literalizes the truism that New York real estate is a nightmare. In the wake of an angry divorce, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) treks beyond Manhattan with daughter Ceci (refreshingly non-Aryan Ariel Gade), but doesn’t quite make it to the boroughs, settling for a one-bedroom in that most enigmatic of neighborhoods, Roosevelt Island. Her building’s brutalist concrete hallways echo mysteriously; the neighbors seem to consist largely of a pair of wan, pin-eyed, catcalling skateboarders; Ceci suddenly exhibits a compulsion to run away and play dollies at the rooftop’s edge; and a blotch of dark liquid seepage looms malevolently on the living-room ceiling. But at $900 a month and with a five-minute subway to midtown, what’s not to love?
Turns out that the artfully asymmetrical patch of water damage (which is not so ugly, really—kind of like a Philip Guston done in india ink) bespeaks a demonic presence, whose evil whispers drip down along with the black water from the apartment above. Gotham renters will undoubtedly sympathize as Dahlia descends into apartment-maintenance- fueled madness. Her claustrophobia spreads beyond the boxy flat; new to the city, Dahlia spends many of her adult-contact hours with a familiar trilogy of metropolitan frustrations: a duplicitous, carbohydrate-faced realtor (John C. Reilly); the terse, vaguely Balkan superintendent, Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite, whose tongue occasionally migrates into Highland brogue); and an equally neurotic divorce lawyer (Tim Roth). The city apparently undergoes an unprecedented monsoon season, incarcerating its inhabitants in never
While this Walter Salles–directed adaptation of Ringu auteur Hideo Nakata’s Japanese original painstakingly summons a miasmic atmosphere of urban-development anomie, it fails to deliver the narrative thrill twists its origins would promise. A subplot involving Dahlia’s submerged childhood memories never quite resolves into the intended maternal-abandonment theme, though most of the film’s shocks are all too easily predicated on scenes in which mother leaves child momentarily unattended. Ceci’s imaginary-friend hauntings recall toddler-based spookiness seen in the recent Amityville Horror remake—traceable back at least as far as Poltergeist and The Shining—but Rosemary’s Baby may be Dark Water‘s true sick-building-syndrome ancestor, the Dakota’s creakings foreshadowing Roosevelt Island’s leakings. Whereas Mia Farrow’s paranoid ingenue finds hell in other people, Connelly’s single mom suggests a more radically insulated loneliness. Indeed, the film’s best moments are ones of doubled interiority, collapsing the mental and spatial, particularly one climactic scene of watery oblivion, which pushes this tendency into audiovisual abstraction.