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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (2000)

6. The Weight of Water

Following the underwhelming box office performance of “Strange Days,” Kathryn Bigelow seemingly had trouble getting another project together. It took five years before a new film from Bigelow was released. “The Weight of Water” didn't come out until 2000. The motion picture didn't reach American shores until two years after that, receiving a limited theatrical release in 2002.  The film was based on the book by Anita Shreve, which was itself inspired by an actual double-murder in the 1800s. The adaptation wouldn't change Bigelow's luck. “The Weight of Water” would earn mixed reviews and piddling box office.

The film concerns two stories, occurring in two separate times. In the modern day, photographer Jean Janes travels on a yacht with her husband Thomas, Thomas' brother Rich, and Rich's girlfriend Adaline. The trip is ostensibly a vacation but Jean is also investigating a murder that occurred in the area over a hundred years ago. In 1872, two women were beaten and murdered with an ax. The murders were blamed on a Swedish immigrant, who was hanged for the crime. While exploring, Jean discovers an account of the killings by a Norwegian woman who lived in the same house. Janes gets caught up in the past while old traumas and new suspicions wreck havoc on her present.

“The Weight of Water” represents a change of pace for Kathryn Bigelow. This isn't an action movie, with nary a gun fight or explosion in sight. It's also not a genre experiment, as the story occurs totally outside the sci-fi or horror bubble. Instead, “The Weight of Water” is an odd hodgepodge of different story elements. The film has aspects of a murder mystery and a historical drama. It also attempts to be a character-based thriller, hoping to weave suspense between a quartet of characters inside a tight location. These tones do not blend well, creating a tonally uneven picture, trying to do many things at the same time.

Another big problem with “The Weight of Water” is how jarring the shifts between time periods are. The scenes in 1872 feel like a stuffy costume drama. The modern day sequences, strangely, feel like a haughty character drama, with unfitting elements of romantic melodrama and erotic longing. Frustratingly, there are very few parallels between these two stories. One is set at sea. One is set on the coast. One concerns murder and dark secrets. Another concerns the ennui of a crumbling marriage. Jean feels a bond with Maren, the Norwegian woman, but the two don't have very much in common. Their stories have even less correlating aspects.

Bigelow, Shreve, and screenwriters Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle attempt to forge some parallels between the two women. Both feel trapped in their lives. Maren is stuck in a strange country, with a distant husband, consumed by desires she doesn't understand and can barely control. Jean's marriage is starting to collapse under the strain of past tragedies and ongoing discomfort. The issue is the magnitude of these dramas. Maren is trapped by tradition and geography, her story ending in violence. Jean is trapped by stubbornness, her marriage threatened by a lack of communication. One story has no imaginable happy ending. The other could be resolved if people just talked to each other.

The romantic aspects of “Weight of the Water” feel especially tawdry. Jean and Thomas' marriage is already threatened. The mistakes of Thomas' past weigh on him. Jean is drifting apart from him. Into this situation comes Adaline. A sexy young woman, she spends most of the movie in a bikini when she isn't sunbathing topless. Thomas stares at her wantonly. His lust enraged, he awkwardly attempts to make love with Jean in a library. Jean is clearly concerned her husband is sleeping with another woman. Yet she acts pettily too, telling Adaline doubt-casting stories that may or may not be true. It feels like the most pedestrian of dramas, people using little doubts as excuses to make big mistakes.

The domestic unrest in the past is, if nothing else, more understandable. Stuck in a small cabin on the stormy Maine coast, Maren has few friends. Her husband isn't home often. He desires a child but Maren is barren. Living with them is a German worker, named Wagner, who attempts to force himself on Maren. Her only friends are a little dog her husband gave her and Anethe, her brother's wife. This story – of several people living in a small home, focused on a woman crippled by fears and doubts – is a lot more compelling than petty suspicions and resentments on a modern day boat.

Yet even the period piece eventually lurches towards some odd tonal shifts. In the last third, we discover that Maren was hiding some shocking secrets. The reason she left Sweden is hastily revealed. Maren was having an affair with her own brother. Now, in the new world, she has developed lesbian desires for Anethe, her brother's wife. It's a sudden, strange twist that seems at odds with the kind of story the film was telling before hand. Afterwards, “The Weight of Water” depicts the murders with the kind of graphic, intense violence that has become Bigelow's specialty. Keep in mind, this was a muted costume drama earlier. The hidden sexual desires and bloody murders really come out of nowhere.

The film did attract a solid cast. Catherine McCormack, a character actress that has worked steadily without becoming a big name, is Jane. McCormack is the film's highlight, giving an intense, thoughtful performance. Sean Penn plays Thomas. Penn brings a detached, haughty element to the character but hints at his pain and desires. The result is a performance that isn't entirely likable but is nuanced. Elizabeth Hurley plays Adaline. This was around the same time as “Austin Powers” and “Bedazzled,” when Hurley was one of Hollywood's top sex symbols. Hurley is gorgeous but her performance is too trivial, the part too thin to be much more than eye candy. Lastly, Josh Lucas is Rich, a shallow character with few opportunities for an actor.

The 1873 segments has fewer big names but may feature stronger performances. Sarah Polley plays Maren. Polley seems in tune with the character, allowing Maren's interior turmoil to come through in small gestures and subtle facial expressions. Seeing Polley cut loose is the only thing cathartic about Maren's eventual violent acts. Ciaran Hinds has an odd balance to play as Wagner, the German immigrant who was blamed for the deaths. He has to be slimy enough that you believe Maren fears him yet sympathetic enough that you feel bad for him when he's wrongly executed. Hinds mostly pulls this off, playing the part as a raw nerve pulled in different directions. The past segments also features “Hocus Pocus'” Vinessa Shaw, who is flighty and vulnerable, and Katrin Cartlidge, who is properly stern.

“Weight of the Water” doesn't present the kind of directorial opportunities that Bigelow's previous films did. There isn't any edge of your seat action sequences, accompanied by bravado film making. Mostly, Bigelow's camera is stuck inside confined places. The director attempts to spruce things up whenever possible. She occasionally adds some slow motion, her tackiest habit, especially once a heavy storm rocks the tiny boat. The murder sequence features some black and white photography, drawing attention to the severity of the situation. The film's proper climax involves Jane hallucinating under the water, where the past and present collide. It's an odd attempt to blend the film's two stories.

By far, the strangest decision holding “Weight of the Water” back is its score. David Hirschfelder, whose scores for “Elizabeth” and 'Shine" received Oscar nominations, makes a baffling decision. The film's soundtrack is mostly composed of smooth jazz. “Weight of the Water” is supposed to be a thriller but Hirschfelder's maudlin saxophones drain tension during scenes that should be suspenseful. Moreover, it makes the long, slow scenes on the boat seem rather boring. The soundtrack makes the film seem even more like, to quote one reviewer, “a tricked out Lifetime movie.”

Ultimately, “The Weight of Water” is a forgettable affair. There are a handful of interesting performances or moments on display. Overall, the twin stories do not connect in a meaningful way. The present-set sequences aren't as interesting as those in the past. The film is hampered by bizarre shifts in mood and a far too relaxed atmosphere. Bigelow was clearly attempting to make a grown-up, serious drama. Yet the material is lacking. “The Weight of Water” is by far the most overlooked of Bigelow's films and it's easy to understand why. [Grade: C]

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