Someone out there is going to use the phrase “the thinking man’s ‘Ring’” to describe “Dark Water,” the latest Japanese horror flick to get an American makeover. And it would not be at all cliché to do so. Indeed, “Dark Water” is less a horror movie than a psychological thriller, focusing on how the ghosts of our past haunt us more than any floating creepy crawlies ever could. It uses more of “The Ring’s” story structure than it probably should, Faustian deal and all (both “Ring” movies and “Dark Water” share writer/director Hideo Nakata), but “Dark Water” plunges far deeper into its characters and their histories, and as a result its payoff is more rewarding.
Jennifer Connelly is Dahlia, a recently divorced mom who’s undergoing a nasty custody battle with her ex-husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) over their daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade). In an attempt to thwart Kyle’s efforts to move all of them to Jersey City, Dahlia takes an apartment in a run-down building on Roosevelt Island. Things slowly start to unravel when water begins to drip into the bedroom from the apartment above them, which confuses both building manager Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) and superintendent Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite), since the family living above them have been out of the country for months. As Dahlia learns more about the residents of the vacant apartment, she starts questioning her own sanity as well as that of Ceci, who has a new imaginary friend that knows things she shouldn’t know.
There are many refreshing aspects to “Dark Water,” but perhaps the most pleasant one is the near absence of special effects. Director Walter Salles (“The Station Agent,” “The Motorcycle Diaries”) wisely stays out of the way, allowing the story to tell itself without any fancy gimmickry or cheap “boo” jumps. If he uses anything, it’s the contrast of shadows and light to create an unsettled mood, which suits the material perfectly. The script, adapted by Rafael Yglesias (“Fearless,” “Death and the Maiden”), is well balanced, exposing Dahlia’s flaws but preventing her from looking like a loon, while at the same time peeking into the darker sides of everyone around her, even those trying to help her.
Connelly is fascinating to watch here. Dahlia knows her weaknesses better than anyone, and watching her deal with how things are versus how things appear versus what she’s afraid is about to happen is heartbreaking. Gade, unfortunately, doesn’t fare as well. Ceci’s sudden insistence that Dahlia take the apartment, coming on the heels of her begging to leave at once, could have used another take. Postlethwaite’s nonexistent accent needed work, too. Truth be told, this is Connelly’s movie, and everyone else, from Reilly’s nice-but-creepy Murray to Tim Roth’s perpetually on the go lawyer Platzer, exists solely to assist or prevent Dahlia’s slow descent into madness.
Smart movies have not done well so far this summer (see “Cinderella Man,” or do what the rest of the country did and skip it), but to be fair, the dumb ones haven’t done so well, either. Touchstone would be wise to position “Dark Water” as a movie more akin to “The Others” than “The Ring,” if it hopes to find the audience the movie deserves.