Photo: Focus Features
by Christopher Bourne Film Spotlight

Dark Waters | Todd Haynes

November 30, 2019

One of cinema’s most creatively fruitful collaborations is that of director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman. The films they’ve made together can superficially be described as period pieces, but this term inexactly and inadequately describes the emotional, psychological, and intellectual resonances these like-minded artists – the boldly experimental Haynes and the ace visual craftsman Lachman – bring to their evocations of time and place. Their recreations of Douglas Sirk-inspired 1950’s suburbia (Far From Heaven), the multiple-persona life of Bob Dylan (I’m Not There), Depression-era Los Angeles (Mildred Pierce), and New York across multiple decades (the 1950s in Carol; the 1920s and 1970s in Wonderstruck) derive their unique vividness from being equally informed by the cinema, photography, and day-to-day realities of their time periods. Dark Waters, their latest collaboration, in many ways harkens back to earlier entries in both Haynes’ and Lachman’s filmographies: Haynes’ indelibly eerie Safe, with Julianne Moore as a woman suffering from environmental illness; and Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, lensed by Lachman and starring Julia Roberts as the titular environmental justice crusader.

Dark Waters features Mark Ruffalo, exuding overwhelming earnestness in this fact-based film, as Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who morphed from advocating for chemical companies to launching a class action lawsuit against one of the biggest, DuPont. This lawsuit uncovered the corporation’s global-scale malfeasance concerning the manufacture of Teflon, which involved massive amounts of toxic waste dumping, poisoning water supplies with chemicals DuPont knew were harmful. Compared to Haynes’ previous work, this scans as conventional, the setup presenting a familiar David vs. Goliath tale. However, this surface-level proves misleading, as the superior artistry and craftsmanship Haynes and Lachman lend to this narrative makes for something truly special. Haynes turns the never-ending DuPont litigation into an engrossing, slow-burn thriller, super-charging Lachman’s evocative images of rural landscapes, glittering cityscapes, courtrooms, and conference spaces with a creeping sense of dread. Much like Safe, Dark Waters is a horror film of sorts, but one in which we are not afforded the safety of assurance that it’s all fantasy. This leads into one of the most chilling closing title cards in recent memory, one where we’re informed that the effects of DuPont’s unconscionable deception are literally embedded inside all of us, and in every living being on the planet.

Published as part of November 2019’s Before We Vanish.