Director Kathryn Bigelow may produce broad, middling big-budget fare when she has a studio breathing down her neck and a big-name star to appease, as she did in this summer's Harrison Ford submarine thriller "K-19: The Widowmaker." But left to her own devices, she's capable of creating fine layers of intimacy and intensity, as she does in "The Weight of Water."
The film, released two years ago in Europe, is a character-driven dual narrative -- the story of a troubled couple spending a tense working vacation on a sailboat with the husband's brother and his enticing girlfriend, and the story of a century-old murder on the New England island where they're anchored.
The wife Jean (played by the wonderfully nuanced and inconspicuously beautiful Catherine McCormack) is an intellectual photographer whose assignment to take pictures of the island and the murder site for a magazine story is the reason for their trip, and the movie's passport into the past. The husband Thomas (a complicated, imaginative and sullen Sean Penn), is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who some years ago stopped picking up his pen and started tipping back the bottle. Their normally steadfast but strained relationship is put particularly on edge by the company they're keeping on this trip.
It seems that Thomas introduced his brother Rich (Josh Lucas) to mischievously coy Adeline (Elizabeth Hurley) when she was coming on to him as an admirer of his writing. "I think he was trying to get rid of me because I was acting too much like a groupie," she shrugs as if it's water under the bridge -- while at the same time suggestively trying to seduce Thomas and make him regret not keeping her to himself.
The intimate performances that drive the marital ennui and unspoken tension in this half of the film are a stark contrast to the formality and emotional solitude that haunts Maren (Sarah Polley), the young, 19th Century Dutch immigrant's wife whose story becomes Jean's obsession while visiting the island.
The girl was the only witness to the grizzly axe and strangulation murders of her sister and her sister-in-law at the isolated cabin their families shared on the outskirts of a fishing village. The case has become infamous local lore in the 125 years or so since, but as Jean becomes engrossed in the details of the slayings, she begins to doubt the legend, and her amateur sleuthing brings the real facts to light as they unfold for the audience in the film's secondary storyline.
Bigalow deftly weaves together the painful melancholy of historical plot and the pressure cooker ambiance onboard the modern sailboat, even though the two stories (adapted from a novel by Anita Shereve) have few psychological parallels. Aided by the understated but penetrating performances of the entire cast (especially Penn, McCormack and Polley, but surprisingly even Hurley, who is normally all sex appeal and no soul), the director brings the intricacies of her main characters' egos into such sharp relief that even their innermost feelings transcend the screen.
"The Weight of Water" is burdened by a few minor logical impasses. Even before she becomes absorbed in her investigation, Jean seems to be doing an excessive amount of research for a photographer, and she never communicates with the writer of the magazine article -- in fact, he or she is never even mentioned. The film's two stories are also uneven in their emotional intensity. Ironically, it's the unfolding murder mystery that lacks potency in spite of its startling reveals and grisly details. And the opening voice-over which hints that "it was impossible to know we had 17 hours left, or 12, or three," is a bit of a cheap and unnecessary cheat for creating anxiety. (It's also a bit misleading since it comes so early that it seems to spell doom on a larger scale than intended.)
But Bigalow's cohesive, parallel spinning of the mounting turmoil in each story, and the actors' ability to pull you deeply inside their characters' psyches, turn this movie into more of an abstract, visceral experience than a strictly narrative one -- which largely makes up for the movie's foibles.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 31st July 2002
Distributed by: Lions Gate Releasing
Production compaines: Manifest Film, Miracle Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 34%
Fresh: 22 Rotten: 42
IMDB: 6.0 / 10
Director: Kathryn Bigelow