Weight of Water, The

Artistically speaking, The Weight of Water, Kathryn Bigelow's first film in five years, may be her most ambitious and personal work to date. Commercially, however, it might be one of her most problematic projects. Boasting a multi-layered narrative that recalls Bergman's Persona, this psychological thriller interweaves a contempo tale of a marriage breakdown with a period story of a brutal double murder set in 1873. Pic benefits from a superlative femme-centered cast, headed by Sarah Polley and Catherine McCormack, but its constantly shifting time-frame, deliberate pacing, and lack of dramatic momentum will severely curtail its theatrical prospects. An entrepreneurial distributor should pick up this challenging, highly demanding art film that's best suited for the specialized circuit.

From her very first film, The Loveless, and particularly after the cult horror movie, Near Dark, it became clear that Bigelow is an audaciously talented filmmaker determined to push the envelope for women directors. The good news is that after stumbling for a whole decade, in which she made only two films, Point Break and Strange Days, Bigelow has given up on her wish to belong to the Hollywood's boy club by making viscerally exciting, ultra-violent actioners that ultimately compromised her singular vision.

With the exception of Blue Steel, a senseless, fetishistic thriller that centered on a female cop, Bigelow's work has not done much for women characters–or distinctly female concerns. In this respect, Weight of Water reps a step in the right direction, putting at the center of the screen five rivetting women, each struggling in her own way with sexual politics and personal identity, issues that provide the link to Bergman's 1966 masterpiece.

Loosely based on a true case, story begins with a court trial in which Louis Wagner (Ciaran Hinds) is accused of murdering two Norwegian immigrants with an ax. A third woman, Maren Hontvedt (Polley), who claims to have witnessed the killings, survived by hiding in a sea cave. Identified by Maren as the murderer, Wagner is convicted and sentenced to death, though the execution takes place two years later.

Cut to a modern-day setting that introduces Jean (McCormack), a photographer who arrives on Smuttynose Island (off the coast of New Hampshire) to research the century-old crime. Jean is accompanied by her husband Thomas (Sean Penn), a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, his handsome brother Rich (Josh Lucas), and the latter's sexy girlfriend, Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley). The quartet set out on a boat trip that's meant to combine business and pleasure. It soon becomes clear, as Jean says in voice-overs that periodically punctuate the narrative, how naive that idea was.

Deeply immersing herself in the case's details to the point of obsession, Jean finds herself undergoing a precariously emotional journey that shakes the very foundation of her marriage and life. Her suspicion that Thomas, a talented but selfish writer, is having an affair with the alluring Adaline, burgeons into jealously and distrust, setting in motion a series of crises with horrific consequences for all concerned.

Experimenting with the boundaries of narrative cinema, Bigelow presents a non-linear tale that's not only multi-layered and multi-time framed, but also displays different perspectives, based on the first-person voice-over narrations of the two interlinked protags, the historical Maren and the contempo Jean. This boldly innovative structure will be praised by cineastes, but will be condemned by more conventional viewers who'll feel further distanced by the excessively fractured story.

The scandalous murder case, that continued to draw attention for decades to come, unfolds as a jigsaw puzzle, with Bigelow masterfully interweaving the various haunting elements, often through flashbacks within flashbacks. Assisted by Adrian Biddle's powerful imagery, yarn violates chronology in recounting Maren's passionate love for her brother Evan (Anders W. Berthelsen), her forced marriage to an older man, John (Ulrich Thomsen), that from the start is barren and unfulfilling, the arrival of her sister Karen (Katrin Cartlidge), and later, brother and his new wife, Anethe (Vinessa Shaw). Catalyst for the eventual murders is provided by Wagner, a German immigrant brought to Maren's house, whose presence affects each of the women.

Both the historical and modern tales are imbued with suspense, benefiting from Bigelow's penchant for creating a visual sense of menace and an atmosphere of fear. A doubt prevails from the very first scene that Wagner might not be the murderer. And the tensions that beset Jean's marriage, and Thomas and Rich's sibling rivalry, finally explode during a heavy rain storm that puts to test their true personalities and loyalties.

Audience reaction will be divided as to which chronicle is more compelling and convincing. The earlier tale, which is replete with Freudian psychology in relating the women's repression, jealousy and rage, suffers from being overly explicit–every element and every emotion are eventually spelled out. In contrast, the modern tale is more ambiguous and subtle, relying less on dialogue than on looks and gestures.

Since the story is told from a distinctly female P.O.V., the male roles, as scripted and acted, are not as impressive as the women's, including Sean Penn's enigmatic performance. In a much simpler role that calls for a strong physical presence, Lucas acquits himself honorably. But ultimately, pic belongs to the five spectacular women. The rapidly rising Polley gives a mesmerizing performance as a victimized woman whose repression and oppression finally find expression in fierce and frenzied fury. Quiet and contemplative, McCormack is equally rivetting as the modern woman who sinks into depression as a result of personal and marital crises. In smaller parts, Hurley has never looked so sexy, Cartridge is as always commanding, and Shaw most credibly cast as the naive bride.

Despite recurrent narrative and dramatic problems, each of Bigelow's pics provides a uniquely visual treat and this is no exception. Demonstrating again her unassailable artistic chops, Bigelow has mounted a superlative production with top-notch contributions from lenser Biddle, designer Karl Juliusson, costumer Marit Allen, and composer David Hirschfelder.