The malevolent H2O coursing through Dark Water leaks from single mom Dahlia’s (Jennifer Connelly) apartment ceiling like amniotic fluid from a third-trimester pregnant woman, a damp, dripping reminder of the fundamental bond between mother and child. As with Hideo Nakata’s soggy Japanese thriller (and Kôji Suzuki’s novel) upon which this American remake is based, Walter Salles’s horror film is a tale of maternal abandonment populated by angry child specters in search of new mommies. Similar to other stateside revisions of J-horror imports, Salles’s ghost story improves upon its source material’s paper-thin characterizations and mood of poignant anxiety even as its narrative explications drain any aura of irrational dread, a reasonable trade-off considering how few frights Nakata’s sodden dud generated from its illogical atmosphere. Yet given its pedigree—author Suzuki also wrote Ringu, which was directed by Nakata—it’s no surprise that this slick adaptation is also a moldy, third-generation retread of The Ring.
Engaged in a bitter custody dispute with her husband (Dougray Scott), Dahlia moves with daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) to a dreary complex on NYC’s rainy Roosevelt Island. Once ensconced in their kid-unfriendly abode, the duo become plagued by strange footsteps emanating from the upstairs residence, gooey water dripping from the ceiling over Ceci’s bed, and the ominous visage of Hello Kitty on a continually reappearing backpack. Alas, thanks to excessive flashbacks, obvious clues and numerous protestations of love from Dahlia to Ceci (and vice versa), any sense of mystery or thematic depth is quickly flushed down the proverbial cinematic toilet. Since Dahlia was deserted as a child by her alcoholic mother, and now fears that her callous husband will be awarded custody of Ceci, it’s preordained that the water damage is the handiwork of a little dead Russian girl who also suffered neglect and rejection, thus establishing the film as a cautionary tale about the traumatic consequences of behaving like a lousy parent (defined as being a drunk and/or a procrastinator who picks their kid up late from school).
Salles and Affonso Beato’s cinematographic palette of muddy browns and decaying yellows doesn’t strike the same chillingly visceral chord as Nakata’s measured, icy gray compositions, but their photogenic lighting nonetheless has the intended effect of transforming Connelly into the most beautiful pill-popping migraine-sufferer in the Tri-State area. When not hysterically crying or punching walls, mad matriarch Dahlia seems perpetually on the verge of screaming, “Out, out, damn spot” to her home’s spreading stain. Still, Connelly’s frazzled state, especially in a silent scene involving Dahlia leaving Ceci in class on her first day of school, lends the character a soulful fragility that pinpoints the fearful protectiveness of a mother confronting the possible loss of her offspring. And though one can feel the director struggling to pad out his mushy ode to motherhood with a bucket-load of pointless red herrings (including Tim Roth’s shady lawyer and Pete Postlethwaite’s gruff janitor), John C. Reilly’s shamelessly fallacious building agent—the kind of sleazeball who instinctively lies with a cheery, Cheshire cat smile—brings a measure of dry wit to this otherwise squishy, scare-free washout.