One can only imagine the bills that Todd Haynes had to pay before directing Dark Waters. Perhaps the box office disappointment of Wonderstruck left him in a pickle. His latest film is a perfectly serviceable environmental drama. However, it’s also a reminder that audiences shouldn’t take the vow of poverty some filmmakers assume in the service of their art.
One can only speculate if Haynes needed a quick. Maybe he needed to finish renovating his kitchen, pay for his cat’s surgery, or fill his swimming pool with Veuve Clicquot. That’s his business.
Don’t get me wrong. Work-for-hire gigs are perfectly fine. They’re part of the industry. But there’s something inevitably distressing about seeing one of the best directors in American independent cinema trade his auteur hat for a metteur en scène card. After delivering the best film of 2017 with Wonderstruck and movies that defined their respective decades with Safe (1995), Far from Heaven (2002), I’m Not There. (2007) and Carol (2015), Haynes’ latest film invites two words one would never have imagined to associate with his work: “generic” and “forgettable.”
One wouldn’t even guess that Dark Waters is a Todd Haynes film without looking at the credits. It’s so vanilla. This competently made ripped-from-the-headlines drama could easily be a Ron Howard movie.
Subtlety and nuance, for example, are often hallmarks of a Haynes film. The repressed longing and autumnal colours of Far From Heaven? Swoon. The come-hither gazes of Carol? Fling me out of space! Capturing the many sides of Bob Dylan through myriad actors in I’m Not There? Sign me up! The childlike curiosity for movies and museums in Wonderstruck? Take me to the stars! His films are richly textured works that delight the senses and move the heart as well as the mind. While the attention to detail in the mise-en-scène of Dark Waters is notable, one wishes Haynes’ authentic and visionary voice shone through more often.
Dark Waters, a Message Movie of shrill order, is all words. The film features Mark Ruffalo as a true-life hero, Robert Bilott. He’s a corporate environmental lawyer who trades the perks of defending polluters in order to play Erin Brockovich. And when his grandma’s neighbour shows up at his swanky office with overwhelming proof that something is poisoning their environment, Robert does the unthinkable. He uses the power of his office to sue a would-be client. Even better, he takes the playbook he developed defending polluters and flips it to fight for the little guys.
Bilott’s investigation is admittedly eye opening. After a sluggish opening act, the film sees the lawyer return to his childhood haunt of West Virginia and see the changes wrought by Big Business. The farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), has cows dying by the day and ample evidence to convince Bilott that the town’s biggest employer, the chemical company DuPont, is poisoning its own employees. After combing through dusty boxes of evidence, interviewing experts to understand intricate documents in non-technical language, and fighting tooth and nail for his law firm to favour principle over profit, he builds a damning case.
His investigation reveals how DuPont willingly and knowingly overlooked evidence that poisoned its own employees. But even worse, he learns that they did so by violating a product that is the bedrock of wholesome all-American family values: Teflon. That non-stick coating on a frying pan, Bilott discovers, is totally toxic and it’s in everything. It’s even in water, which is tainted with the residual super-strain of chemicals that makes Teflon so durable and carcinogenic.
Ruffalo is in top form here playing an anti-hero who commits to the pursuit of truth and justice. Slouching in seat and twitching by the second as the film goes on, he conveys how the David versus Goliath fight consumes him. Ruffalo’s been in similar terrain before with his Oscar-nominated performance in Spotlight. One only wishes Dark Waters were as strong as Tom McCarthy’s journalism fable in delivering its message.
The film gives Haynes little to do but let Ruffalo shout, yell, and explain things. So much shouting makes a film lethargic and loud. For example, a grumpy Anne Hathaway plays Bilott’s wife, Sarah, and is basically a sounding board for the themes of the film. Nails, meet chalkboard.
Dark Waters is one of those movies that rely heavily on a sense of “importance.” The stakes of the film, irrefutable as they are, come at the expense of engagement. A dry lesson doesn’t move an audience. The film gets audiences riled up,but it never makes one care enough to feel moved to action. The film, and perhaps its message, might soon be forgotten. For Haynes, perhaps that’s best.
Dark Waters opens in theatres Nov. 29.