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Dark Water (Walter Salles, 2005)
Jennifer Connelly excels at playing wounded characters. Supporting roles better suit the actress because the thing she does best is suffer beautifully. She's not quite believable as a pillar of strength or a heroine, and though she has the lead in Dark Water, her latest film, its director Walter Salles realizes that on screen she's most convincing as damaged goods. A fairly direct updating of Hideo Nakata’s Japanese original, Dark Water uses Connelly well, but it’s still a mediocre film when it’s judged against the best in its genre (e.g. Repulsion), and as a result of the comparison to better films, one can’t but help wish there was more here to appreciate than the central performance. Connelly, who plays newly single mother Dahlia, is about as good as can be expected, given the material, but because of her natural predisposition to fade so convincingly into the feel-bad atmosphere of her onscreen surroundings, she hardly transcends it.
Salles wastes little time in conjuring that melancholy mood in this ghost story. Dahlia and her daughter move into a $900 a month, one-bedroom Roosevelt Island apartment early on, and it’s to the movie’s credit that the director never tries to posit this makeshift abode as a dream house, a la The Amityville Horror. Though their new home is haunted, Dark Water is less a horror film than an updating of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, with Dahlia’s leaky ceiling, like the titular metaphor of that story, reflecting her slowly disintegrating mental state. Here, Dahlia’s pending divorce dredges up her childhood abandonment issues, causing a mental decay that Connelly ably conveys. In fact, her character’s development seems so articulated that the ghost story can’t help but lag behind. Blatant seeds of exposition are planted early and often to show that something outside of Dahlia’s own psyche is amiss. Early on, her husband calls Dahlia “insane” during her divorce proceedings, tipping the audience off that the heroine’s mental state is about to deteriorate, but it always remains an obvious red herring. Typical of the script’s inelegant way of establishing its horror elements, is a moment during a tour of Dahlia’s apartment, when the building manager is sure to point out that the shower has shatter-proof glass. One can hardly be surprised when she’s later seen trying frantically to smash it.
As such, so much of the ghost business seems beside the point here. The movie is never scary (it’s certainly less frightening than the inferior original, which lacked a presence as strong as Connelly’s), or even particularly creepy. It tries, with clichés like loud noises, the sound of children singing, and images of dirty doll parts, to jolt us from time to time, but it’s hardly effective on those terms. What it lacks when generating fear, however, it begins to make up for by causing the audience genuine pain while they watch Dahlia disintegrate. For all of Connelly’s intense presence, it has to be noted that the specifics of her performance really have little to do with the plot at hand. In fact, her most acutely realized emotional moment occurs during Dahlia’s job interview, in which her surface anxieties and insecurities are made painfully apparent. This leaves the impression that the film would be better served to exist outside the horror genre where expectations of scares don’t exist, and where a character drama can unfold on its own terms. As is, however, Dark Water’s resolution is not exactly satisfying. Much of the thematic material seems unresolved when it’s all said and done. It manages to tell a spooky little ghost story, but it could have been much more.