Todd Haynes injects the legal thriller with subtle artistry and palpable dread

Patrick Preziosi on Todd Haynes’ ‘Dark Waters’ (2019)

Lest one pen American director Todd Haynes as an unequivocal romantic at the behest of his wildly popular queer love story Carol (2015) and its less well received successor (though undeservedly so), the fantastical and serendipitous Wonderstruck (2017), it’s important to recall that mainstream success for the director rightfully came with the surgically disturbing Safe (1995). In it, a Los Angeles homemaker played by Julianne Moore succumbs to “environmental illnesses”, supposedly the byproduct of everyday chemicals. Haynes, however, maintains enough of a detached distance so that her symptoms are inscrutable from being a real threat or simply placebo.

If Haynes’ newest film, Dark Waters — the true to life chronicle of corporate defence attorney Rob Billot’s (Mark Ruffalo) decades spanning fight against brazenly unregulated chemical giant DuPont — seems uncharacteristically procedural in premise, it cracks itself open generously when thought of as a companion piece to Safe. The paranoias of Safe are subsumed in abstraction and New Age ideologies; Dark Waters is the earthbound confirmation to its sister film. Thusly, it becomes all too impossible to simply brush off the straightforward presentation of DuPont’s methodical poisoning of nearly all Americans through production of everyone’s favorite household chemical coating, Teflon.

Haynes isn’t necessarily an economical filmmaker, though his own restlessness delineates the narrative proceedings both swiftly and matter-of-factly, recalling the dynamism of the 70s and 80s American thrillers the director has admittedly cribbed inspiration from (Haynes claims he can watch Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 standard of the genre, All the President’s Men, any week). A brief overture plays out at a local swimming hole in Petersburg, West Virginia, 1975, when a few skinny dipping teens are ushered from their late night swim by men in somewhat scientific garb spraying something in the water. This presentation of the threat, both oblique (what exactly is being sprayed in the water? Who are these men?) and all too realised (obviously dangerous enough to not allow any submergence in the water itself) feels analogous to Jaws (1975), where the monster, whatever it is, will move from the periphery of the film to its very centre by the time it’s too late.

Jumping forward to 1998, Rob has just been made a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister. His boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) refers to him as a man willing to take on all the despised clerical grunt work, and both his punctuality, and the inwardness Ruffalo displays furnishes this claim. It also gives reason for why he just can’t seem to shake the case of Willbur Tennant (Bill Camp). A neighbour of Rob’s grandmother in Petersburg, Willbur resolutely posits that DuPont’s Dry Run Landfill is poisoning the creek that runs through it and to the pasture where his cows graze. Rob is trepidatious at first — Wilbur has construed that his being an “environmental lawyer” means he works with plaintiffs, not the exact corporations they’d be going against — but as he learns of DuPont’s social stranglehold on the region, also underscored with a dose of childhood nostalgia for summers spent at a nearby ranch, he decides to at least initially humour the farmer.

That is, until Rob and Wilbur are almost killed by one of the latter’s own cows, and Rob comes across references to chemicals (PFOA and C-8) in DuPont documents that yield no results when plugged in online. In repeatedly chilling sequences where the audience is subject to Rob’s realisation of DuPont’s undeniable and insidious omnipresence, he starts to strand together different snippets of information: the blackened teeth of a young girl who passes by on her bicycle, the thought to be medically impossible tumors on Willbur’s cows, a chemist stating that drinking C-8 would be equivalent to swallowing “a whole tire”.

So when Rob requests more physical evidence from DuPont, they attempt to bury him. Boxes upon boxes of papers come delivered, with detritus as simple as a Christmas card received by a secretary in 1957. Haynes and regular DP Ed Lachman shoot the midwestern urban city centres of Dark Waters with a dwarfing alienation worthy of Antonioni, and then expertly apply it to the microcosm of Rob’s own work, as the interchangeable boxes of DuPont morph into featureless landscapes of their own. The inherent thrill that governs the film however — and this holds true for many a social-thriller project — is that the audience isn’t waiting for the facts themselves, but for the protagonist to discover them. And Rob, ardent and self-sacrificing as he is, does, stringing everything along in a late-night monologue to worried spouse, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), buoyed by close-ups of the archival information delivered by DuPont themselves.

As a meat-and-potatoes conspiracy film, Dark Waters cannily reappropriates some of Haynes’ most defining attributes of the last few years, sapping them of effervescence, as they take on an almost oppressive uneasiness. Lachman’s camera gently probes nearly every frame, as if to suggest there’s something paramount and/or menacing to Rob’s crusade just out of sight. And Haynes’ penchant for hues of deep blue and green lend the corporate boardrooms and local courthouses disaffecting sterility. The occasional flatness of the compositions, when housed within these unremarkable settings, bear resemblance to Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018). However, Rob is no Schrader lonely man, as he is operating from the inside of — or at least adjacent to — the film’s villain. Frequently, in visually echoing cinematographer Gordon Willis’ work with Pakula (especially 1971’s Klute), Lachman and Haynes will obfuscate Ruffalo in the slats, blinds and glass surfaces of his workplace, as if to imply his increasingly fragile as he continues to uncover more.

As Haynes has been a consistent purveyor of Americana outsiderdom in his filmography, Dark Waters may be both his subtlest and most straightforwardly articulated encapsulation yet. Rob’s own background is marred by a childhood of instability, and his commendable compulsion to always do right sets him at a relative distance from his coworkers. With Ruffalo providing such a reliable foundation, Haynes is free to grant varying staples of middle America with a grace reserved for more coastal locales. The machinations of the conspiracy are what suffuse certain spaces with dread, but also what comparatively render the more pedestrian intervals of Rob’s life — a chance encounter in an Arby’s, a roving shot of a luminous Benihana’s, or a touching meta-cinematic gesture occurring at a Sunoco gas station — with a singular transcendence.

Dark Waters is showing in UK cinemas 24th January 2020.

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.