Review | Dark Waters | 2019

On paper, Dark Waters seems like another "muckraking later takes on a polluting corporation" film, something in the vein of A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich. But while the story is a familiar, director Todd Haynes has taken the time-tested formula and fashioned it into something uniquely beautiful.

From the opening scene we know we're in capable hands. Haynes reworks the iconic opening scene of Jaws, only this time there's no shark in the water - the unseen predator is the water itself, poisoned by toxic chemicals from the DuPont company. This theme recurs throughout Dark Waters - water is seemingly ever present, in polluted streams, in rivers, and in glasses of water on board room tables. Cinematographer Ed Lachman's camera lingers on water whenever it is present, a silent killer lurking at the periphery of the entire film, its presence keenly felt even when it isn't on screen.

This sense of unknowable, undetectable danger is the heart of Dark Waters, whether it's the poisoned water or the unchecked capitalism whose pursuit of profit at all cost caused the problem in the first place, the film is filled with phantom villains and shadowy figures whose avarice has affected the lives of untold millions. The greedy capitalists in question are the DuPont chemical company, whose "miracle product" Teflon turned out to not only be responsible for poisoning the waters of a small town near its plant, but for putting toxins in the blood of nearly every person in the United States for decades. The film centers around lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), whose firm had previously represented chemical companies in cases like this, who becomes increasingly aware of the vastness of this problem when he takes on what he thinks will be a small case of a local farmer (an excellent Bill Camp) whose cows died under mysterious circumstances. The deeper in he gets, the more he realizes that the problem has national ramifications, and he begins to understand the true damage he has helped to facilitate and cover up through his work for DuPont in the past.

It is indeed a dark story, a grim procedural that delves into a man's singular obsession with a case for which he feels partly responsible. In that way, it isn't that far removed from David Fincher's Zodiac, a film where the obsession almost becomes more important than the actual identity of the killer the characters are hunting. In the case of Dark Waters  Haynes seems to be in direct conversation with his 1995 film, Safe, in which a woman becomes paranoid that everything around her is trying to kill her. In Dark Waters that paranoia becomes terrifyingly justified - the silent killers really are in our own back yards, and the companies who put them there will do anything to avoid responsibility.

Haynes take this familiar tales and imbues it with a kind of artful sense of paranoia become manifest. Bilott's struggle is the heart of the film, but it's not just his determination to take down DuPont that fuels the film's drama, its his awakening as a man who was once a part of the problem now determined to help fix it. He's not just a righteous crusader, he's a man wracked with guilt for helping these corrupt capitalists poison the nation through lawsuits and assaults of misinformation. It's a David vs. Goliath tale on the surface, but underneath the dark waters it's a film about a man's conflict within himself - how do you fix a problem that you willingly ignored for decades? How do you make people wake up those who are blind to it just as you were? He understands exactly why he is opposed, and yet money always speaks louder than the truth.

It's that dichotomy that makes the film so fascinating. Haynes could have easily churned out a straightforward procedural like Spotlight and called it a day. Instead, he takes the material and turns it into something both beautiful and horrific, a real-world revisit of the themes that made Safe one of his finest works. There, social anxiety became manifest through real-life symptoms. In Dark Waters the silent killers really are waiting for us in our own homes, and those responsible are fully aware. Darkness has always lurked beneath the surface of polite society in Haynes' work, from Far from Heaven to Carol, here that darkness becomes quite literal. It's a film full of righteous anger, yes, but it's also a film whose painful resignation to the world's overwhelming darkness refuses to leave us with the false hope that this is a battle that has in any way been won. Haynes weaves a haunting sense of melancholy through every frame, infused with Marcelo Zarvos' aching score, leaving us with an unnerving sense of the damage wrought by capitalism and the unchecked pursuit of wealth that continues to wreck havoc on our world. It's an absolutely essential portrait of our time.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

DARK WATERS | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, Bill Pullman | Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, and strong language | Now playing in select cities.


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