If you’ve seen Ring, Ring 2, or Dark Water in their Japanese (or American) incarnations, you know that the fount of all this creepiness, director Hideo Nakata, is obsessed with the primal drama of bad mommies versus good mommies, and that the good ones have to go a long, long way to atone for the bad ones. You also know that he has a thing for demonic/pathetic little girls with long black hair floating in brackish water. (Long black hair = evil, brackish water = death.) The elements are back in the Americanized Dark Water (Touchstone Pictures), but without the usual horror-picture pop-up skeletons and fear-contorted death masks. Directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) from a script by Rafael Yglesias, this is an eerie, relentlessly grim, invasive little movie—a tone poem of despair that seeps into you like the damp. It’s the sort of film that, even in midsummer, makes you wish you’d brought along a couple of heavy sweaters. And maybe an umbrella.
It’s set in the dead of winter, for starters, and there’s a lot—a lot—of rain, both outside and inside. Rain rain rain. I had to work to purge Shakespeare’s “the rain it raineth every day” from my head—but it was only replaced by Creedence’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” The protagonist, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), is such a skinny thing—so undefended, both physically and psychologically. The movie opens with a wrenching memory from her childhood: She’s a little girl waiting outside school (in the rain, of course) for a mommy who doesn’t come. And when mommy does come, it’s not much of a help. She’s drunk or stoned (or both) and radiating hatred.
We meet the grown-up Dahlia as she waits to see an arbitrator. She and her soon-to-be ex-husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) are in the midst of a custody battle over their dark-haired five-year-old, Ceci (Ariel Gade). Kyle wants Dahlia to settle a few blocks from him in Jersey City, but she opts for the opposite side of Manhattan: Roosevelt Island. Not a wise move. The economy-priced apartment complex in which she and Ceci end up isn’t just nightmarishly bleak, it’s. … Well, that’s for you to discover. What I can tell you is that Ceci acquires an imaginary friend that might or might not be imaginary, and that there’s a leak in the ceiling over Dahlia’s bedroom.
Let’s talk about that leak and the accompanying ceiling stain. It’s brown. No, it’s beyond brown—it’s a sort of fecal greenish slimy black. It’s the color of malignant decay, as if the bowels of hell were leaking through. Also, there are intermittent thumps from the unoccupied apartment upstairs. Plus, the brown water that pours from the faucet sometimes has long black hairs in it. Call the super, you say? That’s a whole other kettle of worms. As her ex-husband tries to take Ceci away on the grounds that her mother is a delusional paranoiac, Dahlia sinks deeper and deeper into the nightmares of her past. The walls and ceilings seem incapable of holding back the dark water.
The tone of Dark Water is, to say the least, unvaried, but Salles brings an explorer’s eye and breathless curiosity to this fetid milieu, and he gets the most brilliant performances imaginable for this sort of movie. John C. Reilly’s apartment manager is so indefatigably sleazy (he actually uses the term “brutalist” in praise of the architecture) that it’s a wonder that Connelly (and the film’s crew) could keep a straight face. Pete Postlethwaite is the old super (unpaid) with a thick accent-from-nowhere; his appearance at his door is preceded by the sound of a fly being zipped. Dougray Scott makes Dahlia’s ex a man whose anger seems at least partially justified. He’s a jerk, but he has obviously done his best with a wife so badly damaged. Tim Roth is as marvelous as always as Dahlia’s unnervingly low-rent attorney. Everyone in Dark Water is scuzzy, secretive, and/or lazily opportunistic, but none of them strike you as downright evil. That’s the tragedy.
Connelly plays Dahlia with so little artifice that I never thought of her as “acting.” It’s that close to the bone. Dahlia’s bad mommy seems to have sensitized her to all the horror in this world and the next, and Connelly looks like someone trapped between determined motherhood and despondent childishness. That’s a dank place, indeed—and the dark waters run deep.
Meanwhile, back in the shallows …
Every summer, grownups lament the deluge of mega-budget superhero kid flicks—but hey, think how lucky we are that so many of them have been made by the likes of Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, Brad Bird, Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee, and Tim Burton. These aren’t kiss-up-to-studio-heads hacks. They’re artistically ambitious—in some cases pretentious—young directors with a strong palette and good taste in collaborators. Superheroism in their movies has a metaphorical component: It frequently blooms out of, and reinforces, the protagonist’s freaky alienation. Batman, Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, the dire but earnest Hulk: Whatever you think of them, they aspire to the emotion of opera.
And then there are the films like Fantastic Four (20th Century Fox), which is about what you’d expect from the genre: an overinflated B-movie with no grace, no subtext, no wit, and featuring beefcake/cheesecake actors who look like they’ve been plucked from the soaps. It’s the sort of “franchise” picture that the studios want—impersonally directed (by Tim Story) and free of risky, offbeat casting and messy emotional excess. Will it be a hit? Maybe the fanboys will welcome the film as a relief from all the self-conscious artistry. More likely, they’ve been spoiled by the stylings of Raimi, Logan, Bird, etc., and will hate how disposable their beloved Fantastic Four has become.
As Ben—aka “Thing”—Michael Chiklis gives the only decent performance. With his wiseacre rasp and the pugilistic tilt to his bald head, he looks like Bruce Willis’ heavyset older brother—Bruce Willis squashed down. But he’s saddled with the two worst scenes, both of which involve the disgust of his supposedly loving wife at the scaly behemoth that he has become. After he has just saved many lives on the Brooklyn Bridge (the firefighters give him a round of applause, which shames the police into lowering their guns), Wifey emerges from the crowd to lay her wedding ring at his feet. The audience roars at that—but not as hard as they do when archvillain mogul Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) introduces Jessica Alba as “my director of genetic research.” It’s not that Alba looks like a junior-college sorority girl, it’s that she looks like the stupidest junior-college sorority girl. Why couldn’t they have cast someone more plausible, like Hilary Duff? Then again, Alba is the perfect mascot for this convictionless clunkfest. … 5:20 p.m. P.T.