In the case to persuade Hollywood studios to engage real directors more often, not just for their awards fodder, add "Dark Water" as Exhibit B, right after Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins." Brazilian Walter Salles, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated films "Central Station" and "The Motorcycle Diaries," guides this stylish remake through treacherous territory to create a distressing, subtly suspenseful film full of emotional resonance.
Like "Batman Begins," "Dark Water" places a priority on character development and shuns the GameBoy/PlayStation pacing that plagues a lot of new movies. Salles walks a tightrope, balancing a serious, dramatic narrative involving a nasty custody case with anxiety-inducing themes. Right behind him on that tightrope is star Jennifer Connelly, whose nuanced performance never condescends to the genre and takes the audience along with her right to the edge.
Adapting the Japanese novel and film by the author and director of "The Ring," Salles and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias craftily reset "Dark Water" on New York City's Roosevelt Island, the long, narrow strip of land in the middle of the East River. The claustrophobic locale, soaked with rain and permeated with a sense of alienation, makes for a perfect environment to brew an intelligent, well-crafted thriller.
Connelly plays Dahlia Williams, a newly single mom struggling to find affordable housing for her and her 6-year-old daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade). On the island, they find a place, liberally described as a two-bedroom, in a dank, deteriorating apartment building. Murray, the huckster building manager, played with smarmy zeal by John C. Reilly, assures Dahlia that a new coat of paint and other improvements will brighten up the creepy lobby and sinister ambience.
A furtive trip to the rooftop wins over an initially skeptical Ceci, and Dahlia's desperation to appease her daughter, coupled with Murray's snake-oil salesmanship, has them swiftly moving into apartment 9F, against the wishes of Dahlia's ex-husband, Kyle (Dougray Scott). Before long, a foreboding spot on the ceiling gives way to an oozing liquid the color of French roast, and Dahlia is enmeshed in renter's hell.
Described by Murray as having been built during the 1970s in "the Brutalist style," the building exhibits that approach's devotion to raw concrete and blockish, geometric shapes, spiked with Gothic oddities. Therese DePrez's ("American Beauty") noir-stained production design suggests urban decay fueled by industrial neglect. Shot by cinematographer Affonso Beato, a frequent collaborator of Pedro Almodovar, the visuals send a cold, wet chill down your spine.
Salles carefully calibrates the tension between Dahlia's legal battle with Kyle and the supernatural occurrences that begin haunting her. Yglesias' erudite script moves smoothly between the tangible manifestations of horror elements and the psychological terror experienced by Connelly's character. The true suspense lies in the question of whether these are genuine paranormal occurrences, symptoms of Dahlia's rapidly decreasing sanity or some nefarious scheme by Kyle to win his suit to prove her unstable.
As in "Requiem for a Dream" and "House of Sand and Fog," Connelly masterfully embodies the modern woman on the verge of cracking up. Studio execs should also take note of the difference that casting actors of complexity in supporting roles makes. Reilly; Pete Postlethwaite as the building's super, Mr. Veeck (as in wreck); and Tim Roth as Platzer, Dahlia's lawyer, are terrific, each contributing to the overall feeling that nothing is as it seems.
"Dark Water" at times reaches emotional peaks too abruptly and has its share of "why would she/he do that?" moments, which seem to have become almost requirements of the horror/thriller genre. Salles also wears some of his influences, namely Kubrick and Polanski, on his sleeve, but if you're going to borrow, who better to turn to? These things are easy to forgive, however, because the rest of the film is so good.
Salles avoids the shock cuts and silly, unmotivated twists that addled studio offerings such as "Hide and Seek," "Boogeyman" and "House of Wax" thrive on, instead choosing to focus on building the kind of drama and suspense that made Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others" so satisfying. By concentrating on characters and themes that really connect with an audience, Salles evokes the unspoken fears that fill contemporary urban life.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, frightening sequences, disturbing images and brief language.
Times guidelines: Children in peril, emotional violence and plenty of nasty-looking liquid.
A Touchstone Pictures presentation, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director Walter Salles. Producers Bill Mechanic, Roy Lee, Doug Davison. Executive producer Ashley Kramer. Screenplay by Rafael Yglesias, based on the novel "Honogurai Mizuno Soko Kara" by Koji Suzuki and the Hideo Nakata film "Dark Water." Director of photography Affonso Beato. Editor Daniel Rezende. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Production designer Therese DePrez. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
In general release.