Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Dark Water (2005)

It’s not the supernatural world we should fear, it’s this one.

That’s the underlying conceit of the 2005 horror remake Dark Water, a work based on both a novel and a 2002 Japanese film from Hideo Nakato.

In keeping with this disturbing leitmotif, Dark Water’s visual palette is veritably overwhelmed by sickly green coloring, and protagonist Jennifer Connelly is beset from real-life strife on all sides. 

She plays a woman, Dahlia, under-going a nasty divorce and taking care of her young child at the same time.  Meanwhile, Dahlia’s new landlord, played by John C. Reilly, is a serial procrastinator and liar, and her lawyer is not exactly on the up-and-up, either.

In fact, the whole “game of life” is rigged, from the word of the law, which prevents people from helping to Dahlia, to matters of family connection.  On the latter front, Dahlia was abandoned by her mother when she was but a small child.

Clearly, Dark Water is not a light film, but insofar as Dahlia definitely breaks the cycle of parental neglect for her cute-as-a-button daughter, Cecilia (Ariel Gade) during the denouement, the movie does offer, at the end, some glimmer of hope, if not sunshine.

Unlike other Japanese horror remakes, Dark Water doesn’t concern, at least directly, the spread of a personal horror through the auspices of modern technology.

Instead, it suggest that the wrongs of this world can live on in the next, begging us for redress.  Still, Dark Water does feature a number of narrative commonalities with The Ring (2002) that are worthy of mention.

Again, we meet a single mother and her child as focal points of audience identification. And again, a female child with long hair serves as the specter of the supernatural. In both cases, this avenger wishes -- needs -- to be heard.  Death by drowning is also a significant plot-point in both Dark Water and The Ring. Perhaps these similarities exist because both films originated as stories by Koji Suzuki.

But Dark Water’s lugubrious, haunting value as a work of art emerges not from its all-too-familiar view of the supernatural, but rather from the film’s absolutely caustic, cynical view of our world as a sick place of exploitation and lies. 

The film’s production design performs much of the heavy lifting in terms of transmitting that thematic point.  

The pervasive visuals of 21st century infrastructure decay and the close-up look at the spoiling of a building that was once a “utopia” forge a suffocating, oppressive vibe that haunts Dahlia as much as does the film’s child ghost.

Possessing a kind of unearthly, ethereal brand of beauty, Connelly thrives in this squalor-soaked environment, easily capturing audience affection and forging a deep emotional connection with us through her character’s unceasing, Joan of Arc-like travails and suffering. Dahlia represents a point of delicate beauty, grace and sympathy in a world of seedy wretchedness, and her journey ultimately makes the film worthwhile.

“Her Mom forgot about her and now she’s lost.”

In the midst of an acrimonious divorce, soon-to-be single mother Dahlia (Connelly) moves with her young daughter, Cecilia (Gade) from Jersey City to Roosevelt Island.  Her husband, who is having an affair, threatens to sue if she doesn’t return to New Jersey, but Dahlia stands her ground.

Dahlia and Cecilia move into a rundown old apartment building managed by an unresponsive landlord, Mr. Murray (Reilly), and in unit 9F begins to experience unpleasant living conditions.

Dahlia hears noises from the (vacant) apartment above at all hours of the night, and is faced with a disgusting stain on her bedroom ceiling that seems to expand continuously. The building’s handyman, Mr. Veek (Pete Postelthwaite) is also slow to repair the stain and surrounding leak, and the problem grows from worse to unmanageable.

After visiting the roof and a water tower there, Cecilia makes the acquaintance of an imaginary friend named Natasha, who also lives in the building.

But as Dahlia soon learns, Natasha is not so imaginary at all. Rather, she is in the insistent spirit of a child who was abandoned by her parents, and left to a cruel fate in the very building that Cecie and Dahlia now inhabit.

“Just be honest with yourself, you can’t raise her alone.”

Not inappropriately given its title, Dark Water visualizes a universe of perpetual rainfall, as though the Heavens themselves are weeping for Natasha, Dahlia and all the other children of the world who have been neglected by parents and by society.  

At one point, Dahlia's estranged husband asks her to be honest with herself, and says that she can't raise Cecilia alone. 

And that's sort of the point: no one should have to.  We have a society and a support system for parents, don't we?

Yet in terms of society and the aforementioned it-takes-a-village support system, the film introduces us to lying landlords, deceitful lawyers and useless social workers or counselors.  The world itself is a sick, corrupt realm in the film and one stain in particular -- the stain of parental neglect -- keeps growing wider and deeper, forever untended in a society in which the act of helping another person is an alien thing.

We see the absence of love, help and connection in this world through Dahlia’s frequent interfaces with Murray and the building staff. To state that these interactions are frustrating is an understatement.

Murray often makes promises to Dahlia to solve her problems, but rarely delivers unless forced by authorities, like her lawyer, to deliver on them. 

Similarly, an employee working the front desk won’t leave his position to help Dahlia with looters/hooligans in the apartment above hers, 10F, because it is against the rules to vacate his position, and he could lose his job. He is looking out for himself, not for the tenants of the building, and certainly not for Dahlia.

Likewise, Veek, the building super, won’t fix a catastrophic plumbing issue because he isn’t, technically, a plumber, and the union will be on the landlord’s back if he does the work. Therefore, the work doesn't get done, and Dahlia sees no resolution of the problem.

Finally, even a marriage counselor can’t recommend Dahlia a good divorce lawyer for fear of litigation if she “chooses sides” in the divorce dispute.

Again and again, the issue in Dark Water is the same: everyone is afraid to help out, and will only do so if instructed by some higher authority (union, law enforcement, or judicial system) to do so.  Dahlia faces catastrophic problems in her life and no one will reach out with a helping hand. The social safety net is non-existent, or so flummoxed by byzantine rules as to be non-existent. The crumbling bureaucracy surrounding her -- represented by the spoiled apartment building -- has robbed the community of its human desire, its human spirit, to be helpful.

And of course, none of this represents an uncommon state of affairs for Dahlia. Her mother abandoned her as a child, leaving her to weather life’s storms alone. She knows the rules, and so Dahlia’s heroic journey in the film explicitly involves her ability and willingness to do what others have always refused to do for her.


Despite all those who have wronged her, from her husband to her lawyer (who lies about his family), to her landlord, Dahlia reaches out to a dead girl, Natasha, and attempts to heal her.  

At the same time, this act saves Cecilia’s life. 

The film’s final scene, set in an elevator, suggests that even absent from the mortal coil in physical form, Dahlia will be with Cecilia, will be “her mother…forever.” She breaks the societal cycle of neglect and, in sacrificing her very life, saves two children and their respective (and quite different...) futures. The order Dahlia brings to Cecilia’s disordered life is immediately evident, and nicely visualized. She (invisibly) braids Cecilia’s hair, an act of attention and devotion that promises the child her continued presence, going forward.

For all intents and purposes, Dark Water is really a story of “you and me against the world,” to quote Anne Murray (or was it Helen Reddy?). 

Although she has had no respite from life’s savagery and setbacks, Dahlia nonetheless shelters two girls from it, the best she can.  And the world she fights, in this case, is visualized as a wet, stained, sickly, dehumanized place. 

Built in 1976, Dahlia’s building was designed as a “utopia” but more closely resembles a public housing block in communist Russia. You look out the window and you see…more building, more people trapped inside, with you. The sickly green of the walls, corridors, basement and laundry room suggest a 1940s insane asylum, and architectural inhumanity on an industrial scale. Like the stain on Dahlia’s ceiling, the green “infection” of inhumanity colors everything in the film.

In diagramming an unhappy world, Dark Water offers a unique dynamic. Here, in “real life,” Dahlia must reckon with an adulterous husband and a bitter divorce, an apartment -- a home -- that is falling apart in every corner and a legal system that seems remote and stacked against her.  

By contrast, the supernatural world, through frightening at first, is all about connection. Dahlia must reach out for a child’s hand, even if it isn’t her own child’s hand. She must pay attention to a child where the world had forsaken its responsibility to do so.

Dahlia chooses to die, in essence, but she also chooses to bridge the gap, to heal the wound, separating worlds. She closes the breach. She takes the step that society won’t…and makes the situation better. In some sense, Dahlia could be seen as a saintly or pro-social representation of Motherhood.  But in another sense her sacrifice is also Christ-like. Dahlia takes responsibility for the world's neglected children, essentially, and doesn't hew only to the love of her own child, Cecie.  She sees another child (representing the whole of society) as her responsibility as well.

The Ring is a terrifying commentary on the ways that modern technology and media spread personal suffering to the masses.  

The Grudge is a winding, snake-eating-its-tail story about the ways emotional rage can devour even innocent bystanders. 

And Pulse is a critique of the way that we believe (amusingly...) that human connection is forged, not face-to-face, but through the Internet and a computer keyboard.  

In pointed contrast, Dark Water is a sedentary, buttoned-down bleak study of the world we have made for ourselves. 

The supernatural is not the real terror here, but it might be a respite from the rain.

1 comment:

  1. The norm, so much that it often is just accepted, is that characters in a horror film are almost always affluent. Jennifer Connelly's character (the beautiful Jennifer Connelly), is not, far from it. Watts & Gellar's characters were both, of a certain affluence. The whole film looks like it takes place in the same universe as 'Se7en'.