Dahlia is a good mother. Despite the fact that her husband, Kyle, has cheated on her and filed for divorce, Dahlia is determined to provide for their young daughter, Ceci. But emotional instability due to marital separation and haunting memories of her own neglectful mother have made Dahlia's grip on life tenuous at best.
The financial desperation imposed upon this functional single mother in New York City forces her off Manhattan in search of affordable housing. Enter Mr. Murray, an optimistic-to-a-fault apartment manager on Roosevelt Island determined to rent a gloomy, dungeon-like apartment to the mother and daughter. Ceci's first—and accurate—assessment of the complex: "It's yucky." But the little girl has an abrupt change of heart after she finds an abandoned Hello Kitty backpack while her mom negotiates with Mr. Murray, and she convinces Dahlia that this sunlight-challenged ninth-story tenement really should become their next home.
Things begin to go awry shortly after Dahlia and Ceci move in. A leak in their ceiling fills a large kitchen pot—fast. Nightmares about her mother plague Dahlia's sleep. A creepy janitor named Veeck seems dead-set against helping the pair with their problems. And a concerned teacher at school informs Dahlia that Ceci is more interested in playing with her imaginary friend than with real children.
Before long, mom and daughter are both hearing voices and catching fleeting glimpses of someone, even as the apartment's water problems escalate far beyond what a mere leaky pipe—or even a broken one—could possibly produce. As her sanity stretches to the breaking point, Dahlia discovers a dark story that mirrors her own abusive childhood—a story about another abandoned little girl still looking for a mommy ...
The most compelling positive element in the film is Dahlia’s unwavering commitment as a parent. Though she struggles to provide for her daughter's most basic needs, there’s clearly no shortage of love (“Do you know how much I love you? Do you know I would do anything for you? That’s a promise”). Ceci reciprocates that affection. As Dahlia braids her hair, Ceci says, “It’s perfect. You do it perfect.” Dahlia is a conscientious, concerned and involved mom who's determined not to neglect her daughter as her own mother did. She's also willing to do anything for her child's well-being.
Likewise, Ceci’s teacher is bright and positive. She and the other educators definitely care about the children’s best interest.
[Spoiler Warning] Ultimately, Dahlia discovers that the cause of the mysterious dark water that saturates her apartment is a young girl named Natasha who was abandoned by her parents and accidentally drowned in a water-storage tank on the apartment's roof. Natasha's spirit haunts the complex; her loneliness drives her to connect with Ceci as a friend and Dahlia as a mom. But when Ceci and Dahlia fail to cooperate as Natasha wishes, the spirit grows vengeful and manipulative.
Thus, Dark Water promotes the belief that the dead have supernatural power in this world (dark water always gurgles up when Natasha is angry) and that they can affect and communicate with people who are still alive. In addition to her command of water, Natasha also has power over the apartment's elevator, which she uses to bring people to the abandoned top floor of the building. Like many films in this genre, Natasha is in bondage and demands appeasement from those she’s “haunting.”
Dahlia's final confrontation with Natasha comes when the evil ghost tries to drown Ceci. Apparently, the only way Dahlia can save her daughter is to surrender her own life to Natasha instead. Why? Because the spirit of the little girl wants some company, someone (apparently) to be with her forever. Dahlia willingly and admirably makes that sacrifice so her daughter can live. Two of the final scenes show Dahlia reading a book to Natasha, then reassuring her now motherless daughter, Ceci, that she will always be there when Ceci calls out for her.
Dahlia knocks on the apartment superintendent’s door and hears the sounds of a moaning woman, followed by a zipper being zipped. When Dahlia is on her way to do laundry, she encounters two teens in the hallway, one of whom suggestively tells her, “I’ve got some dirty things I’d like you to clean.” When she sees them again, one says he would like to “nab” her. Dahlia's outfits sometimes reveal a bit of cleavage.
While Ceci is painting at school, Natasha takes control of her arm, forcing her to scribble frantically in circles. Though Ceci yells for her to stop, Natasha doesn’t relent until Ceci’s teacher intervenes. Aside from the spooky tone that follows the creeping water, Dark Water also sports a handful of shock scenes that, while not violent, could easily scare.
[Spoiler Warning] When Dahlia follows Natasha's spirit to the roof, she peeks into a water tank and finds the child’s body floating in the darkness. A flashback scene recounts Natasha tumbling into the tank. An angry Natasha holds Ceci underwater in the bathtub as Dahlia begs her to stop. When Dahlia promises to act as Natasha’s mother "forever," a torrent of water drowns her, and we see a close-up of Dahlia’s face as she lies dead, eyes open, on the floor.
Crude or Profane Language
At least one f-word is used, along with three s-words and a variety of other milder language ("a--," "a--hole," "p---," "d--n," "b--ch," "h---"). God's name and Jesus' name are misused about half-a-dozen times, including a single "g--d--n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dahlia takes prescription pills for her brutal migraines that also put her to sleep. On one occasion, she's knocked out for a full day. Veeck says some hooligan teens have been using “wacky backy,” implying marijuana. Dahlia offers the caretaker a beer, which he turns down. It's implied that Dahlia's abusive mother's problems included alcoholism. Kyle smokes twice; when Ceci asks him to stop smoking, Dahlia says he can smoke as much as he wants—indicating she wishes he were dead. A teenage character smokes and returns to the laundry room to retrieve a pack of forgotten "smokes."
The tension in haunted house movies comes largely from the fact that we know—in broad strokes—what's coming. Even as Ceci convinces her skeptical mom to rent a dark, dingy apartment, we're internally screaming, "Don't do it!" We don't know, exactly, what's going to happen, but we know whatever is causing such mysteriously massive leaks of brackish water can't be good. And it's not, of course.
As well as any movie in this genre can, Dark Water succeeds in drawing two emotionally compelling characters in Dahlia and Ceci. It's not hard to connect with a compassionate mother who cares so deeply about her daughter. And Dahlia's sacrifice for her daughter offers a strong redemptive message that's definitely lacking in the movie that most closely resembles this one, The Ring (which also features water, drowning, parental abuse and a beautiful single mother with a precocious child).
But that message is completely overshadowed by the spiritual worldview that drenches Dark Water: The dead can communicate with us, manipulate us and exercise fantastic supernatural powers to get us to do their will. Ultimately, it's only Dahlia's submission to an angry little spirit girl's wishes that brings resolution. Instead of freeing a tormented specter from bondage, Dahlia joins her in that place—the latest cinematic example of the ghosts "winning" in the end (see The Grudge and Darkness). Apparently, we're supposed to feel good about the fact that Dahlia has one last chance to say goodbye to her daughter and tell her everything's going to be OK. It isn't.
In the end, the spiritual perspective of Dark Water majors on communicating with the dead while wholly excluding any mention (except profane ones) of a God who's greater than life and death.