Movie review: 'Dark Water'

3 stars (out of four)

"Dark Water"—an American version of Hideo ("The Ring") Nakata's blood-curdling 2002 Japanese horror movie—is a shocker with something extra. Focusing on the acutely and painfully well-observed problems of Jennifer Connelly as a single New York mother and her vulnerable little girl Ceci (Ariel Gade) in a dangerous world, director Walter Salles ("Central Station," "The Motorcycle Diaries") give this shocker an added psychological/dramatic level that heightens the shivers.

But Salles may elevate our expectations a little too much. "Dark Water" is, after all, a genre thriller based on a huge Japanese pop movie hit adapted from a novel by Koji Suzuki, the so-called "Japanese Stephen King." Yet Salles and his writer, Rafael Yglesias ("Fearless"), are so adept at creating a new American backdrop and giving Nakata's story added social and psychological layers that we may wind up expecting more than the film can reasonably deliver.

The movie stars Connelly as divorcee Dahlia Williams facing mounting difficulties that include economic hardship, a messy battle with her ex-husband Kyle over Ceci and the ordeals of her horribly run-down apartment, a wreck of a dwelling that also may be haunted.

While battling Kyle (Dougray Scott) in court, with the help of raffish but generous lawyer Jeff Platzer (Tim Roth, typically fine), Dahlia takes up residence in a large, ill-kept apartment building on Roosevelt Island, a little land strip off Manhattan that here becomes a believably contemporary urban setting, a Dickensian slum and perhaps a way station to the hereafter.

In her mess of an apartment, Dahlia's small problems grow into worse ones, largely because nobody in charge—neither the over-glib rental manager, Murray (John C. Reilly) nor dour, taciturn handyman Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite)—takes care of things. Reilly does a terrific job as the smiling, slimy, malarkey-peddling Murray, and Postlethwaite, a ubiquitous figure in quality British films ("In the Name of the Father," "Brassed Off"), adds very believable menace as Veeck.

Most of the menace, though, comes not from these convincing, perhaps familiar everyday horrors, but from the suggestions of something more malignant and even supernatural. On and on the horrors come: the tiny, tacky, wet elevator that seems to trap riders, the dark stain on the bedroom ceiling that presages the discovery of a flooded, abandoned room upstairs, the hints of something awful that happened there, increasingly horrific images of flood and drowning and Ceci's relationship with an "imaginary friend" who may be the ghost of a previous resident.

As these problems worsen and as Ceci seems to retreat more and more into fantasy, we may wonder if both mother and daughter aren't going crazy.

But I've rarely seen a better portrayal of the eviscerating difficulties of a suddenly poor single mother in the city than the movie and Connelly give us here. Connelly, as she also showed in "House of Sand and Fog," is expert at conveying this kind of modern isolation and familial breakup and dread. Dahlia's hardships are so real and "Dark Water" is shot in such an intensely subjective style that the mounting fears are accentuated, doubly disturbing. The realistic base feeds the powerful effect of the film's first two-thirds.

And when it's at its best, Salles and Yglesias encourage us to see the story in two ways: as a genre horror piece where the ghostly gradually becomes real, and as a psychological, heart-breaking tale of a beleaguered mom and over-imaginative child cracking under stress.

Salles' last film, "The Motorcycle Diaries," sympathetically adapted from Che Guevara's youthful memoirs, was a film more humane than radical in style as well as content. Despite its subtitled "art-film" trappings, that movie demonstrated Salles' abilities to convey difficult material to mainstream audiences. "Dark Water," far more mainstream, shows again what a superb director he is of naturalistic, socially conscious, humane and sensitive cinema.

As a sheer ghostly thriller, it's mostly a spell-binder, but I was disappointed at the ending because it had seemed so successful from the start—a horror film with unusual depth and heart—that I'd become more personally involved with the main characters than Japanese horror conventions allow. Salles and his actors beautifully delineate the hardships of a single mother with a small child in a tough city. Though finally most interested in teasing and scaring us, the movie is at its best when it wrings our hearts.

mwilmington@tribune.com

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'Dark Water'

Directed by Walter Salles; written by Rafael Yglesias, based on Koji Suzuki's book "Honogurai Mizuno Soko Kara" and Hideo Nakata's film "Dark Water"; photographed by Affonso Beato; edited by Daniel Rezende; production designed by Therese Deprez; music by Angelo Badalamenti; produced by Bill Mechanic, Roy Lee, Doug Davison. A Touchstone Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, frightening sequences, disturbing images and brief language).

Dahlia Williams - Jennifer Connelly

Mr. Murray - John C. Reilly

Jeff Platzer - Tim Roth

Kyle Williams - Dougray Scott

Veeck - Pete Postlethwaite

Ceci Williams - Ariel Gade

Ceci's teacher - Camryn Manheim

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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