In Dahlia’s world, it’s always raining. This is no rejuvenating warm spring rain either, but cold and dreary, the sort of rain that movies use to mark loss and funerals, and children’s abandonment. Just so, Dahlia (Perla Haney-Jardine) first appears in Dark Water as a child waiting for her mother to pick her up from school. She’s alone in the frame, standing on a sidewalk, her knee socks pushed down around her slender ankles, her hip cocked in weary expectation, her umbrella more ominous than protective.
In another movie, Dahlia’s teacher would soothe her, but here the adult remains anonymous and distant, remarking in long shot that the girl’s mother is always late. Cut forward from this “Seattle 1974” scene to “New York City 2005,” and Dahlia, now grown up and played by Jennifer Connelly, gazes out a window at more rain. Again, she’s waiting. This time, she’s arrived early for an appointment with divorce mediators. When her wayward, about-to-be-ex husband Kyle (Dougray Scott) arrives, he’s impatient and familiar, apparently scolding like he has a thousand times before. What’s the matter with her, he wonders, she hasn’t even tried knocking at the mediators’ door, but only waited, looking bereft, in the gloomy hallway.
Dahlia goes along with this, sort of. Once inside the office, she announces that she has plans of her own, that she means to keep their daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade). “You can’t handle it,” asserts Kyle, brusquely. At which point, she determines to do exactly that. The problem, for Dahlia, is that she’s got mom issues. Her own was an alcoholic, revealed in flashbacks and nightmares to be mean and ugly when drunk: one scene has her head pitched into the toilet, her black hair scraggly over her face as she hisses at her young daughter, “I hate you.” Though Dahlia is nothing like this, she’s afraid to be a bad mom. And this fear is made visible — even physical — in her new apartment.
Located on Roosevelt Island, across the water from Jersey City, where Kyle lives near his new girlfriend, the place is awesomely creepy (as well as “insanely inconvenient” for Kyle). Here it not only rains outside, but also in — while touring the premises, Dahlia notes leaks in the grimly grindy elevator as well as Ceci’s bedroom ceiling. Manager Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) is distracted and icky (“The bathroom’s pretty self-explanatory”), and the surly super, Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite), appears bothered even by Ceci’s adorable presence. The apartment’s green walls, claustrophobic spaces, and deep shadows make it seem the sort of place where David Lynch’s characters live; as Ceci puts it, “There’s no air in here.” Unsure of what to do, Dahlia hesitates.
Meantime, Ceci heads to the rooftop in pursuit of a ghostish girl with a particular affection for a pink Hello Kitty backpack. This would be Natasha (also played by Haney-Jardine), who used to live upstairs and whose sad family photo has been left behind. Moved by Natasha in the way that little girls in scary movies tend to be when they meet “imaginary friends” who will go on to terrify their parents, Ceci changes her mind about the apartment and insists they move in (“I really want to move here”). Dahlia rationalizes the decision by pointing to the great school two blocks away. Here the teacher (Camryn Manheim) is cooey and energetic, and soon advising Dahlia about how to handle Ceci’s increasingly strange behavior.
The more anxious Dahlia becomes, the more she fears that she is unable to “handle it,” the more the dark, soppy, unruly apartment resembles her state of mind. Dark Water hits this dysfunctional mother nerve more than once, particularly in her spats with Kyle, which insinuate an awful marital history even as they suggest that it’s her perspective shaping the scene. “I don’t know who pressed your wacko button today,” he snarks, as Dahlia cringes and he’s supposedly trying to work out a joint custody arrangement.
A remake 2002’s Honogurai mizu no soko kara, Dark Water, directed by Hideo Nakata and written by Kôji Suzuki (who also collaborated on the thematically similar Ringu), Walter Salles’ movie adopts the immersive subjectivity that makes j-horror so unnerving, so nightmarish. Dahlia’s experiences — past and present, inside and outside, night and day — blur together, as she’s either beginning to believe or wholly inhabit Kyle’s judgments of her. Just how she’s supposed to Dahlia is horrified when she “loses a day” to a migraine headache (and prescription medication) and forgets to pick up Ceci at school. At this point, the distinctions between mom’s subjective and material experiences seem quite erased.
It hardly helps that the upstairs apartment, supposedly vacated, is flooded daily, with literally dark and odious water that seeps into Dahlia’s through an ever-widening hole that looks almost organic. While Veeck dismisses the flooding (taps left on and toilets overflowing) as a prank by some shadowy “kids” running loose in the building, Dahlia remains unconvinced. Repeatedly, the film lines up her sense of dread alongside a potential explanation, without granting full credence to either, making your own judgment suspect as well.
Almost worse than these competing illogics, the film offers what might be the embodiment of logic, a lawyer named Platzer (Tim Roth, brilliantly lurching between shady and reassuring). He arrives on the scene seemingly by chance (recommended by an unseen, on the phone friend of Dahlia’s — who also might be quite “real”), then takes both her cases instantly, both for custody and against the landlord. He calls her from his car, currently serving as his office because, well, he speed-explains, they’ve just painted and the fumes are devastating. While her environment is literally collapsing around her, he offers respite in his car and a brief moment of clarity — legally speaking — when he warns Dahlia to temper her characterizations of events, lest she accommodate Kyle’s lawyers’ assertions that she’s suffering from “paranoid delusions.”
While Dahlia is used to such language about herself, she’s shaken when Platzer states the primary charge against her, that Ceci is “starting to share your fantasies.” Dahlia absorbs this notion, as she must, as a reinforcement of her sense of being cursed — in a psychological, chemically imbalanced, or traumatized way. Being a horror movie (and a very good-looking one, even for all its tricks and annoyances), Dark Water can’t grant her a solution, or even much of an objective correlative for her suffering (Platzer is more a distraction than a plot mechanism).
Many horror movies, past and recent, have used the bad or incompetent mother hook (and recently, the bad dad: see Hide and Seek, or better, don’t). What makes this movie both disappointing and intriguing is that it tries so hard to complicate Dahlia’s understanding of this dilemma — as a social and psychic construct as much as a personal experience — then drops it flat, leaving guilty mom to her own very conventional devices. And so, it seems, she’s still waiting.