Classy drama, tasteful horror. That's what "Dark Water" is. And how could it not be when director Walter Salles (coming off the acclaimed "Central Station" and "The Motorcycle Diaries") populates his damp world with three-dimensional characters such as Dahlia, played with heartfelt nuance by the beautiful and emotive Jennifer Connelly. It is not the film's intention to scare us with the cheap cinematic gimmickry used in recent duds like "The Grudge." "Dark Water" is memorable because it is much more than a visceral experience. A quiet character study of Connelly's character, here is a slow burner whose creep factor lies inherently in Salles' ability to immerse us into the malevolence of elementals such as darkness and, yes, water. In fact, water is an important motif in the film.
The film introduces us to Connelly's Dahlia, a thirty-something single mom going through a messy custody battle with her estranged husband (Dougray Scott playing the quintessential jerk). Dahlia comes from a broken home; she has endured a reprehensible childhood, a bitch of a mother and now a devastating marriage. She is the proverbial train wreck who is determined to raise her daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gale), with the concealed hurt of the past and the hope for a better future. When money is tight Dahlia and Ceci are persuaded to move into cheaper accommodation via a hilarious pitch by a sly real estate agent (John C. Reilly). There is also a lawyer played by Tim Roth – struggling with an unfaithful American accent – whose back story is hinted at but never revealed. You wonder about these characters and their stories. Screenwriter Rafael Yglesias wants to keep things lean: the focus is squarely on the mother and daughter; they are surrounded by a few characters whose job is to massage the story into its big revelation. But the dark secret is merely a means to an end; if I may be allowed a metaphor, it is an exorcism of the ghosts that haunt our protagonist. Because of this the horror story arc kind of takes the backseat. I found this approach to be refreshing and much different from "Dark Water's" more commercially successful cousin "The Ring."
The production work in "Dark Water" is magnificent and some may claim a little too magnificent for a horror film. Affonso Beato's cinematography is scrumptious. Music maestro Angelo Badalamenti (a regular David Lynch collaborator) breathes in a haunting, provocative score for the film. Both are enriching complements to director Salles' vision.
"Dark Water" comes with a brave ending. It is no "Rosemary's Baby" because the basic premise cannot allow Walter Salles and his crew to go beyond the boundaries of its genre. However, this is an intelligent and evocative horror drama that had absolutely no right to be this good. - Adnan Khan