Dark Waters (2019)

Dir. Todd Haynes. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp

To hear so many others tell it, Dark Waters is a fairly safe drama which happens to be directed by Todd Haynes. A good movie, not a great one, a little dim in comparison to the corona of I’m Not There or Carol. As I write this, Dark Waters has made a scant five million dollars. Perhaps, the analysts will murmur, it is because we are familiar with the kind of story already. It is the story of a dastardly corporation doing something terrible which must be uncovered by the brave man at the center. Suffering under an avalanche of doubt at work, taking his occasionally shrill wife for granted, the man is only vindicated in the very end. To be sure, most of that happens in this movie. But the consensus on this movie is self-defeating. Humbly, I would ask those others to reconsider, because there is no such thing is a safe drama directed by Todd Haynes. 

Even if he was less involved in Dark Waters from the jump than he was in his previous masterpieces, Haynes’ unmatched ability to deliver context is very much in evidence here. Dark Waters is about how “uncovered” is entirely different from “unseen.” The hero of this story, Rob Bilott, is noteworthy for his stubbornness, his endurance, his decency. All the same, to say he is the first to bring attention to the problems in Parkersburg is like saying that Columbus discovered America. He may uncover them for others to understand, but he is hardly the first to see them.  

Dark Waters tells us as much early on. Cincinnati corporate lawyer Rob sojourns down to Parkersburg, mostly as a favor to his grandmother; she’s recommended him to a farmer who is at his rope’s end. As it turns out, Rob knows the farmer’s property, can go through his grandmother’s albums and see pictures of him playing there as a boy twenty years before. The farmer, Earl Tennant, was as out of place in Cincinnati as a space alien would have been. In Parkersburg, his barks and grunts are discernible. (Bad me: I was afraid that Bill Camp’s performance, after a ghoulishly awkward first scene, would be broad caricature. Bad me, stupid me.) His speech has a context which, in its natural habitat, is not so alien to Rob, a transplanted hick. So it is that given his farm instead of his lobby a hundred feet above the ground, Earl is translated and speaking our translator’s language. Yet it is not all smooth sailing. The cows were poisoned by whatever they drank in the creek, Earl says, whatever DuPont put there. Rob is dubious, but Earl insists, pointing out the unusual rocks. They’re the wrong color, almost bleached. An obliging cut, and we understand what Rob has just come to understand, and what Earl must have understood for years. The revulsion we feel in that moment is tremendous, but revulsion aside, it’s one of the moments that a moviegoer lives for, something almost as holy as an older family member passing along an heirloom. The white rocks in milky blue water are Haynes himself, asking us to see the whole picture, to concentrate on the entire composition, to look for the clues that were always in plain sight and which we only ignore at our peril. 

In Dark Waters, the horrors are as empirical as chemical erosion, and the causes beyond a forever chemical are simpler to point out. In Safe, one of the great allegorical pictures of the last few decades, the horror is mostly implied, and where it points is significantly more nebulous. Horror is in the disease that Carol cannot shake, and in the fact that a cabal of doctors cannot identify it. It is in the rasping gulps of breath she tries to suck in at a birthday party that seem to take in less and less air each time. It is in the shockingly ‘90s pink and teal lighting that fills her days, the deep blues that fill her nights and the apathetic husband whose cluelessness never becomes curiosity. (Haynes is fond of the fuzzy strangeness of a television screen in close-up, of how comforting it is in our national connotation, and how awful it looks the closer you come to it. That close-up television in all its disorienting blurriness is an image he uses in both Safe and Dark Waters, just like the midnight blues of Carol’s living room are repurposed for overcast Parkersburg.) But it is not until late in the movie that Safe gives us a good old-fashioned jolt, one that is so unnatural and disturbing that it locks my spine up every time. A person called Lester who we only ever see from a distance, swathed from head to foot, walking like a wind-up toy would walk, appears from nowhere. He herks and jerks from right to left: that is, he moves from the right side of the screen to the left side. Maybe it’s because we read left to right, or because we make our timelines where the past is left and the future is right, but characters who burst onto the screen from the right are especially terrifying. Think of two of the most iconic murders from two of our most iconic horror movies. When Dick Halloran is murdered in The Shining, Jack pops out from behind a column on the right side of the frame. Then there’s the scene from Psycho that kept me up at night, one much scarier than any shower stabbing: Mrs. Bates, armed with her knife, moving at pace from the right side of the screen, strikes down Arbogast as he ascends the stairs. Lester is no murderer, but he is a member of this august group of screen creeps all the same. 

Ironically, it is Lester who is terrified. “Afraid to eat, afraid to breathe,” we are told. Safe, this movie which is as credibly about the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ‘70s and ‘80s as it is about environmental catastrophe, makes Lester its logical conclusion. He knows what must be done to keep himself safe, and although it’s hard for us to see him as anything but the bull goose loony amongst an Esalen of eccentrics, we witness him as an entirely unyielding and entirely uncanny presence. 

Dark Waters, a picture made nearly a quarter-century after Safe, ends in the docudrama style, which is to say it ends with words on the screen which act as a silent epilogue. Much of the movie’s drama revolves around a four-letter acronym, PFOA. When it is brought up with a scientist for the first time onscreen, he scoffs at the mere thought of it being ingested: “That’s like saying, ‘What if I swallowed a tire?’” The words on the screen follow up. Aside from being present in ridiculous concentrations in Parkersburg, thanks to DuPont, this PFOA is in virtually all living creatures on the planet and 99% of humans. That tracks with what we’ve learned earlier in the picture. It’s in your cooking materials, Rob tells his wife, Sarah. He has been tearing the house apart, digging through cabinets at 2:30 in the morning. He has only managed to get his wife to sit down and listen to him by swearing first to God and then to her that he will give up his one-man crusade if he cannot convince her that DuPont has committed enormous sins. The forever chemical is not just in the frying pans, the first product he learned it infests. (You may know the product. It’s called Teflon.) It’s in the carpet, too, he says. It’s in the atmosphere, the water. It is in the unborn child you are carrying. What goes unsaid is just as loud: “environment” and “context” are synonymous words. The circumstances that Rob describes to Sarah are terrifying in their own right, and all the more so because they are factual. It turns out that Lester from the allegory is one up on the people from the docudrama. He was a goddamn prophet.

Haynes uses the uneasy right side of the screen again in Dark Waters the way he did in Safe. While he’s driving through Parkersburg, Rob sees a couple girls riding their bikes. He sees them from behind first. It’s a cold day, and the girls are bundled up. They’re either exquisitely responsible or they have very thoughtful parents, because they’re both wearing helmets. He drives alongside them, lifts up a hand to say hello. One of the girls looks over at Rob (ever the hick, he’s driving a beloved jalopy) and smiles broadly, laughing. The first time we see the girls, it is meant to be nondescript. They are the scenery of Parkersburg, scenery that Haynes likes to take in from the slow roll of a car. Haynes returns to the technique over and over again, shooting people walking their dogs, people standing in lines, people smoking cigarettes. Girls on bikes are another piece of scenery until, all of a sudden, they aren’t anymore. They are evidence, just as everything in Parkersburg is evidence of the murkiest malfeasance once you know where to look for it; the entire town is a perverted chemistry experiment, and all of it in plain bleached sight as long as epidemiologists have the samples to prove what people like Earl can tell from a peek at the river or his autopsies of his cows. Haynes cross-cuts between Rob on the phone in his Cincinnati home and his memory of the girl who laughed. What does fluoride do to your teeth? he asks the reticent scientist, who cannot wait to get back to his Sunday afternoon. The scientist says that in trace amounts it strengthens teeth, but too much and it will turn your teeth black. We have time to recall Earl’s cows with their disturbingly dark teeth in the space of time it takes to cut again: the girl on the bike, hair strung out behind her, her teeth clearly much too dark, her smile distressingly broad, her body filling the right side of the screen. 

The right side is a fearful one, but Haynes invites us to it as well; Dark Waters is a movie which knows that you will learn more about someone from seeing the room they eat breakfast in than you will from a close-up of their face. Haynes goes to that right side of the screen with that girl on the bike as if to speak for it, saying, “Don’t forget that I’m over here. Pay attention.” And so it makes a good deal of sense that a perfectly normal morning starts for the Bilotts in their kitchen, where the table is in the left foreground and more than eighty percent of the screen is unmanned and placid. The cabinets are fashionably dark, probably walnut. The refrigerator stands, the counter, the appliances, and while Rob and Sarah are talking, the rest of the room is speaking, too. It is asking us to appreciate what Rob has to lose should DuPont’s pet law firm snap too savagely at its master’s hand. 

Over and over again, Haynes finds ways to make the rest of the screen do the work of intimation. Even a heartbreaking moment between actors, like the one where Earl and his wife Sandy come to court and meet up with Rob, is bolstered by Haynes’ attention to his characters’ surroundings. Earl, who was so hefty when we first saw him that he blocked out the light from the windows, now sits still in his wheelchair. The cancer that DuPont gave him is laying him low, and his face speaks more loudly than he does that he doesn’t have much time. But he is not the most important body in that shot where he appears and surprises Rob. It’s the water fountain in the foreground obscuring him, where Rob had been getting a sip of water a moment before, and it is impossible not to think that this proud man would have been able to keep his pride if the water at his farm were as benign as the water from that fountain. The movie doesn’t have to tell us, but it does: Rob can drive on back to Cincinnati when he’s done his day’s work, but there is nowhere for the people of Parkersburg to go. They cannot hide from DuPont any more than the people of Bhopal could dodge Union Carbide. Earl demands legal action against DuPont on that basis. Settlement money could prove enough to relocate, but he wants justice, not refugee status: the water fountain is another reminder of his pride laid low by profound wrongdoing.

The quietly important visuals in the movie are the most outstanding element of the picture, reminiscent not just of Safe but of Red Desert as well. It is impossible to see the DuPont plant in Parkersburg lit up without seeing shades of Red Desert. (“Why is that smoke yellow?” “Because it’s poisonous.”) But where Haynes really got me was in his most on-the-nose needle drop of the entire picture. It’s not the one you’re thinking of, either. Sure, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is an easy choice to be Rob’s soundtrack as he drives through Parkersburg, and, ironic as it is, maybe it’s still a little too easy. But if you weren’t in church in 2000, you may not appreciate how perfect the choice of “Here I Am, Lord” is. If you were, no doubt you recall it as well, and if your church was like mine, perhaps you can hear it fuguelike with “Shout to the Lord” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart” atop an otherwise crystalline memory.

Aside from its clean fit in that scene where the Tennants go to church, it’s also deeply, tacitly appropriate as it relates to the movie’s ideas. The song’s lyrics are pulled from the Book of Isaiah, one of God’s many unpopular prophets sent out to do an unpopular duty. God’s message boils down to something along the lines of, “Tell them that they will be on the wrong end of a great conquest, and assure them that ultimately, some restitution will come.” The parallels between Isaiah and Rob are stark, and I think the movie is interested in them. Rob carries an apocalyptic message of destruction that he only comes to understand with dogged perseverance and a curiosity that, frankly, isolates him from the rest of his world. What could be a better image of a faithful man commissioned with a great task than his first appearance in court since the results of the epidemiological study? He stands, with more energy than he’s had in years, and renewed purpose, to defend his people. There are tens of thousands of cases to be heard, thanks to DuPont’s choice to renege on the deal. Instead of paying out, instead of admitting they got caught, they will force every case to have its day in court. But Bilott is there even if, as the judge says, we will not be able to try all of them until the late 2800s. The text epilogue tells us that Bilott won his first case, and his second, and his third. If this is triumph, it’s as much triumph as Dark Waters is willing to give us.  

Then again: Rob has his own scene in church with his family, and they aren’t singing “Here I Am, Lord” at Mass. They’re singing it at Earl’s church, and this is really at the heart of the picture. Rob is not the prophet. Earl is. The prophets of the Old Testament are lonely figures, by and large, whose only companion is a distant and petrifying god. (Think Elijah, on the run from Ahab and Jezebel, or Hosea, who married a prostitute on God’s command, or Jonah, who ends up inside a whale to think over his faithlessness, or Ezekiel, in a valley of bones…) So often they are rejected by their own people, who cannot bear to hear the overwhelming evangel they preach. While “Here I Am, Lord” drones, Earl gets some truly hairy eyeballs from his fellow congregants. He is poking the bear. DuPont is still the town’s foremost employer, as Rob’s little drive around town has proven to us. Earl is too smart not to know that by now the fate that befell his cows will befall himself, his wife, his daughters, even his dog, whose lesions burn through his fur just as Earl’s lesions stand out on his arms. But he is indomitable. Alone out of the people in church, Earl is the one who understands the lyrics. He must have special insight into the chorus: “I will go, Lord, if you lead me/I will hold your people in my heart.” It’s as brilliant a needle drop, in its own way, as “Top of the World” was in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. It’s about knowing where to look.

2 thoughts on “Dark Waters (2019)

  1. […] You’ll find in this category, I think, fewer of the great stars of cinematography and more people who are working within their director’s signature vision to shoot the movies; one hears much more about Joanna Hogg’s direction of The Souvenir than David Raedeker’s photography. This is on purpose, and at the risk of beginning to sound like one of those people who wonder how valuable Mike Trout can be if he’s not on a playoff team, I think cinematography above virtually any other element of a movie must be integrated fully to its purpose. (This is the one time the Grouches will deign to recognize 1917, which is to say that Roger Deakins accomplishes something really impressive, but of course how it impressive it is does nothing, perhaps less than nothing, to improve the picture itself. The Grouches are rather fond of unusual choices in cinematography, but certainly there must be a prevailing reason for it beyond “Well, it looks cool” or “I have literally nothing left to prove.”) Thus Widmer, who has so far made his name not as a DP but a camera operator, whose contributions to the film (one imagines) are as much an extension of Malick as an addition, but who also has to his credit the movie which dripped heartache into me with every shot. Any idiot could go to the places they filmed A Hidden Life with an iPhone and walk away with deliriously beautiful postcards, but Widmer walks away with something sublime. He has Eden, in the days before the serpent and after it, in his camera. I do want to shout out Edward Lachman particularly from this group, who uses unnatural colors and tints the way that someone like, I dunno, let’s say Tom Stern, could not. Dark Waters is a masterpiece of composition even no one is ever going to use an image from that movie as their desktop background. (For more on how Haynes and Lachman find the periphery of their frames, I’ve gushed in greater detail.) […]

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