"Dark Water"

Jennifer Connelly struggles to keep this drippy thriller moving.

Published July 8, 2005 8:00PM (EDT)

In Walter Salles' "Dark Water" -- yet another American remake of a Japanese horror thriller -- Jennifer Connelly plays a soon-to-be-divorced mom who's forced to find an affordable living space for herself and her young daughter (Ariel Gade). In Manhattan, that's not so easy. So Connelly heads out to Roosevelt Island, which, in the movie if not wholly in real life, is a depressing gray block of low-income high-rises.

A clearly disreputable real-estate agent (John C. Reilly, in an uncomfortably amusing, high-pitched performance) sells her on a cheap flat with weird black mold stains on the ceiling, from which dirty water continually drips. The building's super (played by Pete Postlethwaite, sporting a Russian accent as thick as a slab of peasant bread) allegedly repairs the ceiling, but to no avail -- the drips just keep on coming. Even spookier things begin to happen: Connelly discovers an abandoned apartment upstairs from her own, and can't help noticing that black water is gushing from every faucet and bubbling up, with sinister glee, in the toilet. Supposedly, a little girl used to live in that apartment, but she's nowhere to be seen, and no one seems to know where she's gone.

Like most thrillers, particularly this recent spate based on Japanese movies, "Dark Water" tries to do more than just chill us to the bone with spooky effects. This is really a parable about lost childhood and missing mommies, and about the ways we go about filling all sorts of needs in our lives. If nothing else, "Dark Water" is definitely atmospheric: Cinematographer Affonso Beato ("Ghost World," "All About My Mother") gives the picture a moist gray sheen, as if most of its color -- and its hope -- had been washed away by rain. And Connelly practically holds the whole movie together single-handedly: She's a believable and sympathetic presence in a picture that otherwise comes off as crafty and careful but lacking any real human touch.

Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries") is reasonably skillful at building suspense, at least in an arty kind of way. He massages a few mild drops of terror into us, like an accomplished masseuse. But like so many recent thrillers of this ilk, many of them in some way exploiting the "innocence" of childhood -- the dumb and unpleasant "Hide and Seek" springs to mind -- "Dark Water" falls apart in the wind-down.

I'm never sure which type of supernatural-thriller ending makes me feel more duped: When there's a supernatural explanation for all the shenanigans I just sat through, or an allegedly logical one. I won't tell you which type of ending "Dark Water" ticks off from the multiple-choice selections offered, but I must warn you that "Dark Water" provides a very hospitable home for quite a few never-explained red herrings. They swim directly at us all through the movie, only to disappear down the drain with barely a farewell glug, perhaps on their way to a walk-on in another thriller. Meanwhile, "Dark Water" spins toward its glum, dishwater-gray whirlpool of an ending, which doesn't have nearly as much emotional punch as it should. It doesn't leave you feeling spent -- only soaked.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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