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The Weight of Water (Kathryn Bigelow) 2000


    Imagine if you can, a sexy Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia and you’ll come close to approximating the feel that The Weight of Water, Kathryn Bigelow’s engaging period thriller, creates in its best moments. As the movie, which follows a fictional photojournalist as she attempts to piece together the clues to a century-old double homicide that really happened, flashes back and forth, it initially feels as if the plot might never build to anything resembling a head, but then, in the final forty-five minutes, Bigelow pulls out her action movie chops, and edits the movie into a thoroughly compelling, fast-paced frenzy of physical and emotional turbulence. Bigelow is nothing if she’s not an accomplished visualist, and this time out she seems to cram all of her money shots into her closing montage, but the effect is dazzling. Suddenly, the film, which felt rather slack to that point, festers with potent sexual jealousy. Much of the credit for the raised excitement in the film’s second half must also go to Sarah Polley, whose slow-boil of a performance as a repressed 19th-century housewife finally begins percolating midway through. Her glum, calculating, penetrating stare is the sort of thing that gives a viewer nightmares, and even if we’ve figured out where the film was going an hour earlier, it doesn’t fail to shock us when it finally gets there, thanks to her.


    The second half of the film’s substantive uptick is almost enough to make you forget that the first hour doesn’t have much that’s worth mentioning, until the end places it into context. As the photojournalist (Catherine McCormack) tools around on a boat with her husband (Sean Penn), her brother-in-law (Josh Lucas), and his girlfriend (Elizabeth Hurley), they take turns flirting with and shooting mean-spirited, sidelong glances at each other. Though the sexual tension is thick all around in both stories, since Bigelow’s been a hardcore feminist in her films for some time now, it doesn’t take a genius to guess where the chips are going to fall. The performances are subtle enough though, that it remains interesting while we wait for the director to amp up the action. Most of the early suspense in the present-day sequences comes from it being paralleled against the past story, which is quite obviously building to a revelation that we know will eventually be matched in the present day sequences. Movies with a stronger second half are more rare than those that don’t live up to their early promises, but they also tend to be more fondly remembered. The Weight of Water is no exception to this rule. It overcomes its initial wobbliness and turns into an engaging and literate psychodrama.


* * * 


Jeremy Heilman