Critics certainly don't enjoy terrible movies, but their relish in deconstructing them is usually palpable. No, perhaps the critics' biggest horror is the film that teeters on the edge of recommendation. And so it goes with Walter Salles' Dark Water, which I recommend with a rather large proviso.
For Dark Water, like The Ring, remakes a Hideo Nakata film based on a Kôji Suzuki novel. The Ring succeeded as a movie, and in most respects, Salles' Dark Water succeeds as a film, but the latter competes not only with its direct predecessor, but a whole quick-breeding subgenre of Asian horror films and their remakes: Ringu, The Ring, Ju-On: The Grudge, and The Grudge; the cannibalizing includes Nakata remaking his Ringu 2, on these shores, as The Ring 2; next, Nakata will direct the American version of The Pang Brothers' The Eye. A pattern has emerged, with the original playing art houses and the remake taking the multiplex; both versions eventually haunt the same video shelf.
Where does this leave Salles? The uncharitable view is that the director (whose last film was the much-lauded The Motorcycle Diaries) is simply wasting his time here, and that may well be true. On the other hand, Salles keeps his head above Dark Water, arguably outclassing the other films with superior acting, mise en scene, story, script, and photography. Salles has at least as much discipline as his competition, but he's also blessed with a sense of humor and a sensitivity to actors.
Jennifer Connelly plays Dahlia, a bleary single mom entangled in am unpleasant divorce. To live near the best school—but with a hint of spite for her ex (Dougray Scott)—Dahlia moves her six-year-old daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) across the East River to Roosevelt Island. "That's not the city," Ceci insists, recognizing that, from now on, she's an outsider. By comparison, their grimy, decrepit new apartment building makes Roman Polanski's urban apartments seem positively welcoming.
To a one, the new men in her life are prone to prevarication: John C. Reilly's comically corrupt landlord, Pete Postlethwaite's slippery super, and Tim Roth's lying lawyer, with each actor providing ticklish support. But Dahlia has bigger and more unnerving problems: painful memories from her childhood, an ominous leak from the apartment above, her daughter's increasingly erratic behavior, bad dreams, and escalating, undiagnosed supernatural phenomena. The scares, mostly involving coffee-colored water, never stray far from Ceci (the "child in jeopardy" can be a questionable device, but it's essential to Dark Water).
Though Dark Water doesn't run deep, Salles goes as far as he can with his themes. The haunting of the apartment resonates, coincidentally or not, with Dahlia's childhood traumas of abandonment, alcoholism, and insanity. Meanwhile, her ex-husband's hysterical outbursts ("You're insane!") seem more prophetic by the day, as the haunted apartment stokes Dahlia's paranoia. "It's important," her lawyer reminds her, "to seem like we're the sane ones."
Salles keeps the scares understated for as long as possible: where's the kid? What's up with the elevator? Where is all of this dripping, gurgling, and spurting coming from? It's standard poltergeist stuff, but executed with verve. Affonso Beato's deep-shadowed photography resists digital blemishing and unnecessary color filtering, Angelo Badalamenti delivers an unsettling score, and Salles (with screenwriter Raphael Yglesias) pulls off the aquatic journey from drizzling rain to big teardrops.