Walter Salles' 'Dark Water' is just about the only good thing that came out of the plague of J-horror remakes that swept through Hollywood in the aughts. More: it is one of the most undervalued genre films of that decade – a lovely, hypnotic horror-tinged mood piece that got buried in a summer that gave us 'Revenge of the Sith' and 'Batman Begins.' Frustratingly, its greatest strength was often singled out as a flaw: rather than trying to develop a sense of danger, Salles instead filled every frame with an all-encompassing, otherworldly melancholy. It's not really about a ghost. It's about a woman who's trying like hell to be the good mother she didn't have – and is mortified at the prospect of failing.
That woman, evocatively named Dahlia, is played by Jennifer Connelly in the least strained, the most invested, and perhaps the most difficult performance of her career. Her work, while nearly always good, has never been this crucial. She is the movie's lynchpin and its sharpest instrument.
Stripped of the conventional trappings of horror films and ghost stories – there are practically zero jump scares in this film, and only a few unsettling special effects – 'Dark Water' leans on Dahlia's psychological disintegration to generate tension. What makes the movie so diabolical and interesting is that it also doesn't let Connelly use any of the typical hallmarks of a performance like this. For all that Dahlia is falling apart, she never has a breakdown. She barely cries and doesn't do hysterics. In her darkest hour, she draws the curtains and falls asleep; when she wakes up, she calmly tells her friend that she "lost a day."
It's not until the dramatic, water-drenched climax that Connelly gets a chance to let loose – at which point the movie, determined not to make things easy for the actress, promptly obscures her face. But it turns out that Connelly doesn't need big, showy outbursts to make us feel Dahlia's increasing desperation and fear. It's there in every scene. Watch Dahlia interview for a medical office assistant job for which she is brutally overqualified, or better yet her conferences with her daughter's teacher, played by a kindly Camryn Manheim. This is a woman who is trying as hard as she possibly can to suppress the hurricane of fear and despair blowing just under her calm façade, and Connelly nails that feeling, sustains it, builds on it for nearly two hours. Occasionally, some of that desperation bubbles to the surface in subtle ways – watch it flash across Dahlia's face when she sees a painful vision in the bathroom of Apartment 10F. It's more startling than any jump scare.
Connelly's performance in 'Dark Water' is also one of her most prosaic – and I mean that as a compliment. Her work tends to be brooding, heightened, somewhat bombastic; well-suited to something like 'House of Sand and Fog,' which tries to deliver every emotional beat with the force of Greek tragedy, or 'Requiem for a Dream,' which assaults the viewer visually. 'Dark Water' is one of the few times she plays an ordinary woman with – ghosts aside – everyday concerns: job, kid, divorce, plumbing. She should do it more often; it suits her well.
If you skipped 'Dark Water' five years ago because of the poor reviews, or the glut of other stuff to see, give it a chance. You'll find an elegant, subdued horror film that's more concerned with its characters than about being the most extreme movie on the block. And you'll likely fall in love with Jennifer Connelly, whether it's for the first time or all over again.