July 7th, 2005
You’ve heard of the “One for me, one for them” approach to film careers? Where an actor or screenwriter or director agrees to make a formulaic Hollywood film so they might get carte blanche to do a more personal project down the road should the first film become a major hit? It seems this kind of cynical behavior could be the only logical explanation why such incredible talents as director Walter Salles, screenwriter Rafael Yglesias and actors Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Pete Postlethwaite and Tim Roth would ever become involved in such an inept thriller (I use that word lightly, almost mockingly) as “Dark Water,” a film which would have been, at least to New Yorkers, more entertaining as an absurdist comedy about the troubles one woman will go through in order to not live in Queens, the Bronx or (god forbid) Jersey.
Salles is the gifted director who guided “Central Station” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” to worldwide success and helped usher in the new Brazilian film renaissance, and Yglesias is the genius who wrote “Fearless,” one of the few true masterpieces of modern cinema. Like these films, “Dark Water” shares a common theme of a person looking for a second chance at life. Dahlia Williams (Connelly) is in the middle of a bitter divorce from Kyle (the always bland Dougray Scott), just another setback in a life which has already seen more than its fair share of heartache. Mentally abused by her mother when she wasn’t being ignored or forgotten altogether, Dahlia suffers from occasionally crippling migraine headaches and possibly a case of undiagnosed schizophrenia, and has only her daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) to keep her on this side of sanity. Needing a new place to live, quickly and inexpensively, Dahlia finds a one-bedroom in a sinister looking building on Roosevelt Island, in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Queens, although it’s debatable which is creepier: the building itself, its superintendent Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite, putting his eerie facial structure to fine use) or Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly), the slimy real estate agent who shows Dahlia the apartment. And if Dahlia didn’t have enough problems to contend with, she starts to experience a number if strange circumstances, including long strands of black hair coming out of the water pipes and an ominous and growing black water stain on her ceiling. Quickly, things move from bad to worse, as Ceci starts to imagine a new friend who has a too-close resemblance to the young girl who used to live upstairs.
The worse crime a thriller can perform is to have a lack of thrills, offering nothing but a series of maguffins in place of genuine suspense. Is Dahlia crazy? Is she really experiencing these episodes or is everything in her head? It depends on what the filmmakers want you to think at any specific moment. Sometimes, they need you to think she is a bit loopy, even though everyone else sees the exact things she does. Other times, you’re led to believe some people are acting against Dahlia, only to alter the storyline when the information needs to go a different direction, or completely abandon the plot point altogether. (One such scene has Dahlia seeing Kyle talking to two older teen hoodlum teens who live in her building, through the window of a pizza parlor next door, at a point just after Kyle has put forth to the divorce mediators that Dahlia’s sanity is questionable and shortly after Veeck tells Dahlia about the two hoodlums, who have been known to break into empty apartments in the building, like the one right above Dahlia’s, and cause damage. The meeting between Kyle and the hoodlums, in which we also see him give the kids some smokes, is invariably meant to insinuate Kyle may be working in the background to make Dahlia even less sane than she may already be, but then this subplot is never visited again.) It’s hard to say whether these errors were in Yglesias’ script to begin with or if Salles made some questionable cuts in the editing room, but the story for “Dark Water’ is regularly disorganized throughout. The film is essentially wrapped up after 85 minutes, but since we know going in this is a thriller and that most thrillers tend to run nearly two hours, we are stuck with a confusing water-logged finale and an embarrassingly unnecessary epilogue, none of which added anything of substance to an already senseless story, leaving us to wonder what the point of the story was in the first place.
Salles does get some of the New York attitude down pat, thanks to two intelligent casting moves, which brings the film its few agreeable moments. John C. Reilly is faultless as the uncouth managing agent, no doubt relying on his own experiences as a long time New York resident to play the two-faced bastard just right. Tim Roth also shines in his few moments as Dahlia’s lawyer, the fast-talking ultimate ambulance chasing attorney with a heart of gold, whose office is the interior of his SUV. The young Ariel Glade also has a few sparkling moments as Dahlia’s young daughter, but Connelly and the rest of the cast are often not portraying characters so much as being pawns in service of the threadbare plot. The actors deserve better. The audience deserves better.
Like a rich soufflé that never rises, “Dark Water” fails to equal to the sums of its talented ingredients, and is only of regional interest only to current or former New Yorkers looking for a few good laughs at other people’s expenses.
My rating: D