The past isn't dead—it isn't even past—in The Weight of Water, Kathryn Bigelow's fiercely wrought, if sub-Faulknerian, time twister. Adapted from Anita Shreve's novel, The Weight of Water is a mystery that, like last summer's Possession, proceeds simultaneously on two temporal tracks, with more visceral results.
True story: during the night of March 5, 1873, two women, both Norwegian immigrants, were hacked to death on Smuttynose Island, 10 miles off the New Hampshire coast, while a third was found hiding in a sea cave. The women's erstwhile boarder was hanged for the crime, but who knows what really happened? Which brings us to the fictional gloss: some 125 years later, a magazine photographer (Catherine McCormack) assigned to shoot a photo essay on the gruesome events sails to Smuttynose in the company of her husband, a hard-drinking, Pulitzer-winning poet (Sean Penn), his brother (Josh Lucas), and the brother's current girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley).
The Weight of Water opens as dank 19th-century hubbub—with the surviving immigrant (Sarah Polley) giving testimony at the trial—then flashes back to what may or may not have happened at the crime scene, before leaping headlong into the uneasy present. The doggedly grim McCormack is hoping to enjoy a working vacation, but she's spooked both by desolate Smuttynose and the suspicion that Penn is either having or about to embark on an affair with Hurley. (A walking provocation, Hurley not only quotes the Penn's character's poetry, but she also has a distracting habit of fellating ice cubes while sunbathing topless on the deck.)
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Bigelow weaves this ambiguous marital thriller with a more compelling Nordic tale of incest, jealousy and murder. There are mysterious selkie voices in the sea wind and portents bobbing on the waves as the action shifts back and forth between two isolated, claustrophobic locales—the sailboat of suspicion and the island of insanity, where Polley's lonely fisherwife is cooped up with a mean-spirited older sister (the late Katrin Cartlidge) and a beautiful, sensuous sister-in-law (Vinessa Shaw). The movie is smoothly edited and the mise-en-scne strenuously atmospheric. Skies lower, clouds race, and chiaroscuro runs rampant with oversaturated colors to suggest a world that's always five minutes past sunset.
The Weight of Water has a literary undercurrent—it has to incorporate shards of poetry in the maelstrom—and ample foreshadowing. But like Bigelow's earlier movies, it's lazily scripted. The plot is filled with inconsistencies; the dialogue borders on risible. The experience is structural and visual. Bigelow keeps her camera close to the actors and intentionally confuses matters by accentuating the resemblance between McCormack and Hurley (and Polley and Shaw). As the modern couples are drawn into the vortex of an ancient evil, or rather, into the photographer's attempt to grasp that evil, Bigelow boldly tries for a thaumatrope effect, spinning ever more quickly between her stories until they begin to merge. Whose sexual betrayal is precipitating whose? The morose, lurid frenzy culminates in a pair of dark and stormy nights with a flurry of further-back flashbacks and violence crackling like a lightning bolt across the centuries.
Two years on the shelf, The Weight of Water is certainly a personal project and one that, particularly in its off-kilter casting (with Penn and Hurley essentially playing movie stars), suggests of strategic compromise. As with Possession, the contemporary story is overshadowed by the period material. It's also marred by a discordant arrangement of one-note performances. The movie is lovingly detailed but unaccountably clumsy, obviously ambitious and unfortunately chintzy. It's also genuinely anachronistic. Given the two-dimensional characters and the surplus of visual metaphor for their poorly expressed yet outsized passions, this might have made a great silent film.
THE WEIGHT OF WATER WAS DIRECTED BY KATHRYN BIGELOW; WRITTEN BY ALICE ARLEN AND CHRISTOPHER KYLE; AND STARS CATHERINE MCCORMACK, SEAN PENN, ELIZABETH HURLEY, SARAH POLLEY AND VINESSA SHAW. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE.