To be sure, director Bigelow (Strange Days, Near Dark) and her screenwriters, Alice Arlen and Christopher Kyle, are up to their gunwales in good intentions and grand artistic ambition. But their hopeless tangle of plots (extracted from an Anita Shreve novel) and their overreaching philosophical concepts make for a mess of a movie that's soaked with affectation.
Where to start? In one time frame -- the present -- we meet two unhappy couples stuck with each other on a yacht close to a rocky island off New Hampshire. In the second time frame -- the late nineteenth century -- we are thrown into the middle of a grisly double ax murder that has intrigued skeptical New Englanders for more than 125 years. The connections between the two melodramas are tenuous at best -- the pivotal characters in each tale are afflicted by melancholy and tortured by what the soap operas call "forbidden passion" -- and the filmmakers have a hell of a time making sense of it all. Psychological complexity is one thing, pompous confusion quite another, as Ingmar Bergman and Roman Polanski could tell you.
The present-day mariners include Sean Penn as a gloomy Pulitzer Prize-winning poet named Thomas Janes and Catherine McCormack as his unhappy wife, Jean, a photographer who's working on a story about the ax murders of yore. Their boatmates are Thomas's brother Rich (Josh Lucas) and Rich's luscious girlfriend Adaline (Elizabeth Hurley), who gets things started in the temptation department -- as far as Thomas in concerned -- by removing her bikini top and suggestively sucking on an ice cube. If the buttoned-up Jean had doubts about her husband's fidelity before this, they're now out in the sunlight for all to see aboard this ship of fools.
Meanwhile, back in 1873, we've got parallels by the boatload. In a dizzying series of flashbacks, Bigelow explores the traumas surrounding the so-called Isle of Shoals mystery -- the murders of two isolated, sexually repressed Norwegian immigrant women (Vinessa Shaw and the late Katrin Cartlidge) by a horny German named Louis Wagner (Ciarán Hinds) who had been hired to do odd jobs by the husband of a third woman, Maren Hontvedt (Sarah Polley). The record shows that Louis Wagner was convicted of the crime and hanged. But Jean, as suspicious of that old verdict as she is of her husband, uncovers long-hidden evidence that leads to another killer and a completely different scenario, one involving incest, guilt, jealousy and -- what have we left out? Oh yes -- lesbianism and madness.
What the filmmakers hope to do, of course, is to constantly nourish the new story of lust and betrayal with the old one (and vice versa) until all kinds of universal truths about twisted human relations come to light. What happens instead is that Bigelow wears us out. In both time frames, the dialogue becomes so arch ("We're both trying to stop time," Thomas declares to his wife) and the psychological tensions grow so murky that an hour into the thing you want to throw up your hands and make for the concession stand. By the time our present-day sailors find themselves mercilessly thrashed by the inevitable gale that reflects their own inner turmoil, you may feel like calling the symbolism police instead of the Coast Guard. Were all four of these unlikable neurotics to drown at sea, the world might be a better place. Unfortunately, only one of them perishes.
As the intrepid detective/photographer Jean finally uncovers the truth about the Isle of Shoals murders -- or the version of it that suits her needs, anyway -- yet another convenient flashback reveals the actual murderer, coming clean about the crime. "It was pleasure, death, rage and tenderness," the killer tells us, "all in one night, indistinguishable and a challenge to sanity."
You can say that again. A challenge to sanity itself, The Weight of Water means to be heavy in terms of psychology, provocation and the examination of emotion, but it sinks like a stone the minute it hits the surface.