A “ripped from the headlines” thriller about a chemical corporation wilfully poisoning untold millions before being brought to heel by the dogged efforts of a single attorney may seem at first quite “outside the wheelhouse” of a director like Todd Haynes.
But with his new film Dark Waters, the creator of such queer classics as Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015) is actually returning to the likes of his Poison (1991), Safe (1995) and, above all, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988); films in which both the environment and personal health play a key role.
The difference here is Haynes’ newfound skill at handling the full resources of a “Mainstream” feature with an awards-worthy lead in Mark Ruffalo and a dramatic drive reminiscent of the glory days of Costa-Gavras (Z ) and Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View).
Socially-conscious dramas aren’t exactly an endangered species what with the likes of the Ruffalor-starred priestlypedophile thriller Spotlight of 2015, and just this year Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn , which uncovers high-level criminality in Fifties-era New York much like Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) did for Thirties-era L.A.
But Dark Waters has quite a different tone as it patiently traces the evolution of Ruffalo’s lawyer, who has made a career of working at the pleasure of the corporate class, finds himself changing sides.
This begins when he’s confronted by a beleaguered West Virginia rancher (Bill Camp) who presents him irrefutable evidence that his cattle have been poisoned by the local water supply. Said water has also served to blacken the teeth of the locals, before killing them outright with cancer.
Suspecting corporate mendacity is one thing — proving it quite another. But what distinguishes Dark Waters is the way it gets into the details as Ruffalo’s lawyer educates himself in science in order to isolate the chemical formula that Dupont (the chemical corporation in question) has created making innovative products at he cost of consumer health. This may sound dry, but it’s very dramatic on-screen.
The result: it’s safe to say that after seeing this film you will never use a “Teflon”-coated pan again. Would that were enough. It isn’t. For the problem, the film shows, is the damage has already been done to such an extent that 99 percent of the U.S. population is infected to one degree or another with deadly chemicals and at present there’s nothing we can do about eradicating them from our bodies.
There is however quite a lot we can do about corporations, and their dominance in governmental policy, provided the right people are in charge. Dupont, thanks to the overwhelming number of lawsuits the story behind the film inspired, is no more. Needless to say other villainous concerns are still in operation.
Under President Obama a wide number of measures were taken to insure that chemical wastes were no longer dumped into the nation’s rivers and streams. That the Trump administration has ordered the reversal of these policies is yet another reason why its ruinous rule must be brought to an end as swiftly as possible.
Meanwhile back at the movie Dark Waters (whose finely-crafted screenplay is the work of Mario Correa, and Matthew Michael Carnahan) offers the distinct pleasure of a film made for grown-ups with Ruffalo’s star turn ably supported by Anne Hathaway as his neglected wife, Tim Robbins as a legal colleague who comes to join his crusade and Victor Garber as a slickly evil Dupont executive.
Working with his usual cinematographer Ed Lachman and dramatically enhanced by a vibrant musical score by Marcelo Zarvas, Hynes delivers the bad news with added assurance that consciousness and comprehension are the best disinfectants of them all.