The awful reality of a vulnerable mother.
"Don't let the rain come down" goes the old song. Not since Mike Nichols liberally used water as an ambivalent motif in The Graduate has water had such a psychological impact as it does in Dark Water, a thriller that abundantly uses horror story techniques but goes further to expose the tender nerve endings of a separated mom, Dahlia, caught in a cheap Roosevelt Island apartment that drenches her and her young daughter, Ceci, incessantly both inside and out with leaking ceilings and flooding floors that promise drowning both real and figurative.
Outside the obligatory ghost,incompetent apartment super, and conflicted dad lies the awful reality of vulnerable women being forced to live in substandard housing, dangerous to health because separation leaves wife and husband with no means to do better. Jennifer Connelly as Dahlia has the right blend of intelligence and helplessness to bring off what might have been just another distraught 30-year old mom with seriously disturbing images of her own mother abandoning her early in life. The parallel legend of an abandoned little girl turned ghost and befriending Ceci emphasizes the universal problems faced by single mothers everywhere.
Director Walter Salles knows how to make Roosevelt Island look bleaker than an abandoned Riker's Island, more foreboding than Manhattan at dusk in a dirty winter, and yet as desirable as the nearest suburb given the astronomical rents on Manhattan Island in any year. The socially conscious Salles also hints at the secret lives of other Roosevelt detainees: a lawyer who lies about his domestic life and an apartment manager whose blather about the advantages of the decrepit apartment hides the horrors of leaking ceilings are just a few of the menaces the lonely mother faces.
Salles suggests the sacrifices a mother might have to make for her child are never gone, about as bleak as the island itself on its rainy days. Find a similar sense of abandonment and horror in The Others (2001). Any film that makes Manhattan warm by contrast is scary itself. The marginalized life of a distressed young mother has never been so well expressed as in this film, where islands are metaphors for people.
"Oh, it 's a snug little island!
A right little, tight little island."
Thomas Dibdin (1771-1841): The Snug Little Island.