The ominous downpours that have drenched much of recent Asian cinema soak New York in “Dark Water,” the well-crafted but thoroughly unsuspenseful Hollywood debut by Brazilian director Walter Salles. Remake of the 2002 Japanese film of the same name from the progenitors of “The Ring,” novelist Koji Suzuki and helmer Hideo Nakata, is dripping with clammy, claustrophobic atmosphere, but ultimately reveals itself as just another mildewed, child-centric ghost story of little import or resonance. Commercial prospects look middling.
An initial shrewd decision, be it by screenwriter Rafael Yglesias, Salles or someone else, concerning the drama’s setting ends up providing the film with its greatest point of interest. Aside from the tram that connects it to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Roosevelt Island has rarely served importantly as a cinema location, a fact extensively exploited by Salles and his crafty team. The rundown Brutalist School apartment complex, sickeningly moist wall surfaces, rotting infrastructure, constant wet gloom and sense of physical isolation all give the film a huge headstart in building a fearful mood.
Unfortunately, the dreadful weather inundating this former outpost of the city’s lunatic and criminal asylums does not translate into dread to the profit of the film. Mood is all here, as the plot mechanics advance with all the excitement of an elevator in which every floor button has been pushed.
After a brief prologue that suggests how neglected the heroine was as a little girl, Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly) takes her 5-year-old daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) on a desultory apartment-hunting expedition.
In need of a bargain and anxious to put some space between her and her Jersey City-based ex-husband Kyle (Dougray Scott), Dahlia succumbs to the amiable hustle of a real estate manager (John C. Reilly, in stellar form) and takes grim apartment 9F in a shabby building whose only advantage is its proximity to a good school for Ceci.
Salles, production designer Therese Deprez, cinematographer Affonso Beato and associates take evident delight in detailing every last miserable aspect of this funky abode. In very short order, this one-time example of progressive architectural thinking has become a collection of caves barely fit for man or beast. The raw materials could provide chills even in springtime, the color scheme revolves around moldy green, the plumbing probably never worked properly and the staff makes you want to check them for parole-mandated ankle bracelets. Then there’s that inky stain on Ceci’s bedroom ceiling and the weird noises that sometime emanate from the supposedly empty apartment above.
On top of the annoyances repped by her new home and her temperamental ex, Dahlia must cope with a boring job and her daughter’s increasing habit of talking to “an imaginary friend” and her obsession with a left-behind Hello Kitty backpack.
The water breaks, so to speak, when Dahlia, rightly indignant at the lousy maintenance service she’s getting even for $900 a month, enters the apartment above her to discover it flooded with brackish water pouring from open faucets. Stirred in with the physical threats are Dahlia’s suspicions about Kyle’s manipulations, her nightmarish memories of her delinquent mother and, above all, the unfolding story of what happened to a little girl named Natasha in 10F.
Although history is full of examples of highly intelligent directors who have made frightening mass-audience films, it’s still tempting to suggest Salles’ sensibility may simply be too refined for such elemental fare.
Try as he might, the director of “Central Station” and “The Motorcycle Diaries” isn’t even capable of implementing a shock cut that makes one jump. Many less talented filmmakers can make you want to look away from the screen for fear of what’s coming, but Salles, while loading on the atmosphere in a way that would have delighted producer Val Lewton 60 years ago, can’t deliver the jolts to quicken the pulses of 21st-century viewers.
Creditably holding her own in a role that has her onscreen virtually throughout, Connelly is best here at conveying the strain of a woman forced to deal exclusively with issues pertaining to her child’s welfare and to cope with a life bereft of any source of pleasure. Gade fills the bill as little Ceci, Tim Roth is amusing in the character role of a New Yawk lawyer whose office is his car, Pete Postlethwaite is suitably creepy as the curmudgeonly building janitor and Scott keeps one guessing as to whether he’s evil or not.
Craft contributions outstandingly create and sustain the mood of sodden malevolence in the visual and aural arenas.