There's a terrible leak above 9F. It spreads across the bedroom ceiling in the shabby apartment, dripping mucky brown water. It thumps, creaks, and even whispers singsongs. It's driving Dahlia and her young daughter crazy ... literally.
In Walter Salles' psychological horror thriller Dark Water, single mom Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), fleeing a messy divorce, rents an apartment in a rundown modernist concrete block on New York City's forlorn Roosevelt Island, formerly the site of insane asylums, jails and poorhouses. She's suckered by an aggressive agent (played with just the right degree of careless menace by John C. Reilly) and her child Ceci (Ariel Gade), who suddenly takes an intense interest in the apartment.
With its dark passages and weird inhabitants, the building provides little refuge for the troubled Dahlia. The ceiling drip leads her upstairs to 10F, an abandoned apartment with unimaginable plumbing issues. As Dahlia struggles to set their lives in order against the building's drippy chaos and her own fragile emotional state, Ceci grows estranged, drawn away by an imaginary friend who may or may not have lived in 10F.
Salles, who previously directed the south-of-the-border arthouse faves Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries, understands that less can be more in the creepiness department. His studied touch, and Connelly's nuanced portrayal, create a satisfying ambiguity for the viewer: Are these horrors simply the result of Dahlia's emotional collapse? The film also effectively makes Roosevelt Island its own character: While in sight of Manhattan, the narrow strip's rain-soaked concrete edifices truly are another, and less desirable, space that seems bleak, remote and haunted.
Dark Water is based on the 2002 Japanese film of the same name from Hideo Nakata, one of the progenitors of J-horror (Ringu) who recently adapted his own work in The Ring Two. Accordingly, this film suffers from our familiarity with watery ghost stories involving sad little girls and hyper-protective moms.
Motherhood is certainly on full boil in Dark Water, even as the film questions Dahlia's defensive actions. She's a bad mom, the child custody scenes tell us; Dahlia's own mother was a mess, echo a series of flashbacks. Even as it trumpets the mantle of motherhood, the story suggests that mothers, with their raw emotional connection to their young, will always be the more vulnerable parent, that they are most likely to cause harm, and that even their self-sacrifice will bear heavy costs for their children.
It's too bad then, that despite its promising set-up, worthy cast and effective moodiness, Dark Water resolves unsatisfyingly. The intrigue peters out in pro forma explanations, and the disposition of the female hero is ultimately as retrograde as that of the fainting damsel of yore.