Mention the short film "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and use it to compare and contrast with any film in the context of a review like this one and the "surprise" has immediately been ruined for the semi-knowledgeable filmgoer.
However, that same semi-knowledgeable filmgoer is also likely to hear a voice in the back of his or her head saying "thank you from saving me from seeing yet another one of these." In fact, "Dark Water" is yet another one of these - another one of these boring, supposedly atmospheric, supposedly mysterious stories whose atmosphere and mystery are ultimately solved by the discovery, sometime toward the end of the film, that the storyteller is dead.
In this case, Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly), moves to Roosevelt Island near Manhattan with her daughter Ceci (Ariel Gade) after a pre-divorce split from her husband Kyle (Dougray Scott). Having little money, they move into a run-down building managed by Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) and fixed up by the on-site Mr. Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite).
Almost immediately, bad things start to happen, the most pronounced being a leak in the ceiling. Little Ceci also develops the quintessential creepy imaginary friend and mommy starts popping pills to control her paranoia. Dahlia hires a lawyer (Tim Roth) not only to deal with her husband, but also to compel Murray and Veeck to fix the leak in the ceiling.
Let's just say that the disaster of Dahlia's bad apartment selection doesn't exactly make for thrilling drama. There are people in New York who have cockroach and rat problems so pronounced that they'd probably cut off a limb to sublet Dahlia's place.
However, every minor quibble with the dullness of the build-up to the "surprise" aside, the real problem with the film is simply in its construction. It's obvious that in any film where the main character is revealed to be imagining things, the veracity of any one scene falls into question, but usually the director gives the audience some way to distinguish between what the character imagines and what is real. Here, director Walter ("Central Station") Salles does no such thing.
Basically what I'm saying is that the film is nothing more than a cheap trick. There is nothing in the movie that is persuasively real. The end result is like watching two reels of one movie only to be surprised when the third reel turns out to be another movie. It just all feels like a complete waste of time.
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