Thursday, July 14, 2005

Long Overdue: The Dark Water Review

From the moment it began, each frame of Dark Water channeled, dark, cold, wet dreariness. There was something about the way it was shot that made you feel as isolated as the main character, Dahlia.

When Dark Water begins, Dahlia, (played masterfully by Jennifer Connelly) is in the middle of a bitter divorce, and for the time being, has been given primary custody of her eight year old daughter, Ceci. But her custody of Ceci is contingent upon her finding a suitable place where they can both live. After a lot of fruitless searching, Dahlia ends up taking a dumpy apartment in a beat up building on Roosevelt Island.

Director Walter Salles, (who also directed The Motorcycle Diaries), captures his interpretation of a soggy bleak New York City on screen with near perfection. In an early scene of the film, Dahlia and Ceci are riding on the tram over to Roosevelt Island from Manhattan; the high angle shots of New York shrouded in a grayish white mist are as melancholy as they are atmospheric. I have never been on Roosevelt Island, and to be honest I don’t know if I ever will after seeing this movie. Against the backdrop of the chilly clouds, the brown brick compound like buildings looked more like factories than residences. There was a foul industrialism that seeped out of every structure on the island, especially the building that Dahlia moved into. The visual environment that Salles created was an ugly, lonely deserted landscape, a place where it seemed impossible to find happiness.

But Dark Water held much more resonance with me that its cinematic artistry. I thought the way that the themes and characters were woven together, was quite astute and effective. The film definitely had a strong cohesion, and for the most part, I never felt like there was any real piece of it that felt out of place. My friends and I used to joke when we’d see a film that had a bizarre performance or sequence, and yell out “Meanwhile, in a completely different movie…” But Dark Water didn’t have any of those moments. All thematic estuaries let out into the same body of water, and mixed together seamlessly.

This movie achieves a unique balance by which we see a lot of the story through the eyes of Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) as we follow journey. But we also see just enough of what she doesn’t see to create a sense of suspense and tension. As the movie unfolds, we learn through quick flashbacks, that Dahlia’s mother had been an alcoholic who was prone to fits of rage and verbal abusiveness. Though we never see it actually happen, we also learn that Dahlia’s mother also essentially abandoned her at a young age. As we glean bits and pieces from Connelly’s past, including the fact that she might have some sort of psychological disorders (she pops pills often throughout the course of the film), there is also a mystery unraveling in the building. Strange things are happening; there is an ominous dark colored water stain that keeps reappearing on the ceiling of the Dahlia and Ceci’s bedroom. Dahlia learns that the apartment above them keeps flooding and dripping murky water onto them despite the fact that supposedly nobody lives up stairs. Dahlia’s daughter Ceci, begins to develop strange behavior, claiming that she has a new “imaginary friend”, another little girl just her age by the name of Natasha.

The reveal of this film is far from astonishing. Even if I hadn’t seen the trailer about 50 times before seeing the movie (they ran it incessantly out here), I feel confident that I still would have guessed that the building was haunted, and as is the tradition in many Japanese horror films (yes Dark Water was yet another remake) the ghost would be someone who had been wronged in life. As it turns out, the ghost in this case was a little girl, just about Ceci’s age, (and the same age that Dahlia was when her mother abandoned her). The ghost, Natasha, who had befriended Ceci (as her imaginary friend) with ulterior motives, was the product of a broken home and divorce parents. Each parent assumed the other was watching over her, and while alone one day, she had climbed up the side of the water tower on the roof and fallen in. Just like Dahlia, she had been abandoned, and was seeking a maternal figure among the living to coddle her.

I think it was unfortunate that this movie came out so soon after the Ring 2 was released. The Ring 2, which I though was a fairly terrible movie /a>, was all about Samara, another ghostly little girl searching for a maternal figure. Samara had been abandoned by her own mother, and latched onto the idea of making Rachel (Naomi Watt’s character) her new mother. By taking possession of Aidan, Rachel’s son, she hoped to take his place in her life, as she found the mother she had been searching for, for years. At the end of the film, Rachel rids herself of Samara’s spirit, and saves both Aidan and herself.

Clearly, Dark Water explored a very similar theme, but I thought it was a much more interesting take. Dark Water had that sort of 70’s – esque atmospheric psychological thriller vibe to it. It reminded me a bit of some of Roman Polanski’s earlier work, like Rosemary’s Baby, and in particular, Repulsion. This movie was in many ways the story of Dahlia going mad, as she was unable to escape her past and hold onto her future. All she wanted more than anything in the world was to take care of her daughter, and to be the best mother that she could possibly be. There were a lot of really tender moments in the film between Dahlia and Ceci, (the two actresses had great chemistry) that encapsulated the maternal love between a mother and daughter. One in particular stuck in mind where Dahlia is preparing Ceci for her first day at her new school. They are rehearsing how Ceci will greet her classmates in front of the mirror as Dahlia braids her hair. Dahlia is trying to become the things that her mother never was for her. The film opens with a flashback of Dahlia waiting on a rainy day for her mother to come and pick her up from school, she waits and waits, but her mother doesn’t arrive for hours, and when she does she’s drunk and belligerent. But no matter how hard she tried, it always seemed like something was trying to get inbetween her and her daughter. Whether it was her husband trying to gain more active custody, or this imaginary friend who put a wall up between them, there always seemed to be something there. The black water stain that seeped out onto the plaster even after repairs were done, was symbolic of Dahlia’s past. A past that she wanted to run away from, and hide from her daughter but she could not.

Dark Water wasn’t really a film with the jumps and scares that we’ve come to expect from Horror films. It was more of a slow build to a psychological inferno. There were several shots in the film when Dahlia reached into her medicine cabinet to grab her pills. She would shut the door and look into the mirror. Each time this happened, I expected her to see some horrible image, or some monstrous thing standing behind her. But there wasn’t. There was only her own face looking back at her. And this was the most horrible thing of all. Dahlia couldn’t change who she was, she couldn’t escape the memories and the hurt that she had from her childhood with her mother. There is another very disturbing scene where she goes upstairs to the apartment above hers which is flooded. There is water everywhere, and she is wading in it up to her ankles. In the bathroom is a woman getting sick into the toilet. When she sees the woman lift her head, she sees that it is her mother, and she remembers her mother being drunk and sick and telling her that she hated her. This was such a terrifying yet poignant moment. The pouring water all around her created a dreamscape in which her most inner films were being realized before her very eyes. She was reliving the horror of her childhood. Beyond that, Natasha, the young ghost who is haunting her and her daughter, is really just a manifestation of Dahlia’s young self. The abandoned young child who is lonely, and is seeking love and acceptance and attention. It is yet another symbol, like the dark water stain, of the fact that her memories and pain follow her everywhere she goes.

I think the thematic concepts behind this film were both moving and intriguing, the acting was solid all around. There were some great moments with the supporting cast of John C. Reilly, Pete Postlethwaite, and Tim Roth. However, as has happened before, I feel that the movie suffered from some conflicting forces from the director, and the studio. It seemed that Salles was going for very somber, slow moving character piece with a lot of psychological elements, and Disney wanted a summer horror blockbuster. There were definitely a couple moments that felt like forced “scares” and interrupted the measured deliberated pacing and framing of the movie, such as when hair starts coming out of Dahlia’s faucet. Also, there was some clunky exposition in the film when it came to exposition – using secondary characters to “explain” much of the history of what had happened in the apartment above Dahlia’s. Polanksi’s movies never had that sort of thing…it was possible for things to just happen in his films, and he had a great knack for showing instead of telling. But then again that was the 70’s.

Unlike the Ring 2 (which I actually didn’t even think was scary) and The Grudge, two other Japanese Horror flick remakes before this, Dark Water was not about the gore or the cheap scare. It really was about the story of one woman who is driven to the brink of insanity because she cannot escape herself. I think one of the pieces of the movie that suffered most from what I am presuming to be the studio’s push for a traditionally structure horror film, is the end. In many horror movies, there is what as known as the come back. The hero or heroine appears to save the day, and then just as the audience and main characters have breathed a sigh of relief, the final horror is unveiled. Towards the end of the film there is a moment where Dahlia enters the consciousness of Natasha, and experiences what she experienced when she died. As she re-enacts the last moments of Natasha’s life, she ends up at the water tower, which is where Natasha’s remains are. Not only was this too similar to The Ring, I thought, (Rachel finding Samara in the well), but then the movie follows the traditional formula, where it seems like everything is fine now that Natasha’s body has been found. But then Natasha comes back (just like Samara did). If you ask me, I think they should have cut the scene where Dahlia finds Natasha and cut right to the scene where Natasha finally makes herself visible and tries to claim Ceci’s life, so she can replace her, and become Dahlia’s daughter. Dahlia, of course makes this ultimate sacrifice, and tells Natasha to take her instead, promising her she will be her mother for ever and ever. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this ending, but after ruminating over it for a couple days, I realize it makes perfect sense. Dahlia was at last making peace with herself, because she could not continue to run away from her painful past. She was reconciling with her former child self. Despite the fact that she did this to “save” Ceci, she was also acknowledging not only her daughter’s needs, but her own need for a mother, because she in essence was also Natasha. What makes the ending so bittersweet, however, is that she could only do this in death.

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