Dark Water (Walter Salles, 2005, 105 min.)

Is there really such a place as Roosevelt Island in the real New York City, or is this a place created by the filmmakers? Here, it’s a place where it rains all the time, except for when it’s merely overcast; the buildings, constructed “in the Brutalist style,” as John C. Reilly helpfully explains, are all oppressive remnants of failed social-engineering schemes—the best intentions, gone to seed and slowly crumbling because everybody agrees that they were a bad idea. Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), in the middle of a divorce from her husband (Dougray Scott), needs a cheap apartment in the city, and she and her daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) have come to Roosevelt Island because the rent is cheap and the local school is good. “It’s not the city,” young Ceci informs her mother, and an ordinarily taciturn New Yorker on the tram breaks the silent public-transportation covenant to agree with her.

“It’s yucky,” says Ceci about the apartment building, and we agree with her. It’s a dismal, impersonal building, poorly lit, and painted in that horror-movie/urban-angst palette somewhere between Seven and Fight Club. As the sleazy building manager, Mr. Murray, Reilly is a prototypical used car salesman: he promises patch-ups and explains obvious faults as bits of personality. In addition to the horror-taupe paint, the low ceilings, and the lack of illumination, the building features the scariest elevator this side of Angel Heart, a creepy handyman named Veeck who refuses to be handy (Pete Postlethwaite), and a nasty leak in one corner of what will be Ceci’s bedroom. Ceci hates the place, and Dahlia isn’t impressed either, but she changes her mind after Ceci finds a Hello Kitty backpack on the roof and decides she really likes it after all.

At first, the horrors seem run-of-the-mill. Dahlia is plagued by migraines, and they seem to occur more often in the new apartment. Of course, it doesn’t help that her soon-to-be-ex sues her for custody of Ceci, claiming that Dahlia is unbalanced. At first, we don’t believe him: she’s a little vague, yes, and her frequent silences speak of a propensity for distraction, but she seems normal enough when she’s interacting with Ceci. There are problems with the apartment that will make any city-dweller nostalgic: nobody seems to have the authority or the will to fix that leak in the ceiling, the neighbors upstairs are too noisy, and the elevator keeps wanting to take her to the floor above hers. The faucets spurt brackish water more often than not, and there are aggressively insolent teenagers about. Typical city living, until Ceci meets a new imaginary friend named Natasha, Dahlia learns that the people who lived upstairs disappeared, and Veeck’s explanation that teenage vandals are causing the ever-increasing leak and noise seems less and less believable. Under pressure from her spiteful husband and an increasingly bizarre array of phenomena, Dahlia starts to lose her grip on herself.

Because it’s not a festival of horrors, there’s time for viewers to notice how well-made it is. Walter Salles, the director of such high-minded fare as The Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station, might seem to be an odd pick for a genre film, but he uses the genre well. The cinematography, by longtime Pedro Almodovar collaborator Affonso Beato, is Oscar-caliber, a beautiful and oppressive blend of light and shadow, murky colors and fuzzy edges. Rafael Yglesias’s screenplay avoids the horror-movie-cliche overdose that scuttled the awful The Ring: this film seems stripped bare, to its essential parts, without a lot of unnecessary exposition. Perhaps he understood that he could entrust volumes of exposition to a single shot of Jennifer Connelly, who is riveting here, as she has been in everything she’s appeared in since 2000, or even before. When did she become so good, and how did she sneak up on us like that? She’s got all-star support, too: John C. Reilly, Pete Postlethwaite, and Tim Roth (as Dahlia’s lawyer, who focuses on her case to avoid thinking about his own) are all perfect, and Ariel Gade is pretty darned good for a child actor. She doesn’t seem like a miniaturized adult; she’s not disturbingly precocious like, say, that distubing cherub Dakota Fanning.

The other main character, which Salles and Beato use brilliantly, is the building. The central storyline—basically, about a little girl whom everyone forgot—is externalized by the setting. The building in which the film takes place, and indeed the entirety of Roosevelt Island we’re allowed to see, is part of 1970s urban renewal, and can be seen as a sort of favored child of the city planners, but now it’s sitting, forgotten, rotting. Aerial views of the building confirm its isolation: it’s in a huge E-shape with its back to the city, the courtyards facing inward, so residents see only other, similar buildings. Reilly grudgingly admits that the entire project was a failure of planning. Even the film’s major surprise—when the discovery of the little girl’s body doesn’t appease the ghost; that is, doesn’t solve the essential problem—finds a parallel in the modern city. In the 1990s and today, city planners, realizing that enormous high-rise housing projects were an utter failure, “solved” them by tearing the buildings down, burying the problem like one would bury a dead child. But it doesn’t address the essential issues—the crime, the poverty, the hopelessness—and in the film, burying the body doesn’t solve the basic issue, which is the abandonment. I haven’t seen the original Japanese film of which this is a remake, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the modernist architecture of the setting is a major factor.

Viewers familiar with Japanese horror films will not be too surprised that the combination of a single mom, brackish water, and little girls with long, dark hair turns out badly. There’s a trend in films like this of the sins of past generations being visited on the current generation, but it’s not really as easy as that: the vengeance, if you want to call it that, doesn’t follow bloodlines, because anyone who happens to be present will do just fine. It doesn’t always make sense, because it places a higher premium on dread than on logic. The film has to do a tricky balancing act: lacking major, grisly horrors, it has to build slowly, relishing its surprises as it increases the tension to the breaking point. If I have a major complaint about it, it’s that the buildup is too mild, the payoff too slight—it’s the stuff of slightly scary campfire stories, not of screams and nightmares.