Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Dark Waters: Sounds like the title of the kind of 1950s melodrama that Todd Haynes might take and camp up, a Lana Turner high-gloss femme-fatale mystery suitable for queering. But no, this is Haynes’ new film, which critics generally seem disappointed about—here’s Haynes playing something straight, with a sincere social message attached. Maybe it isn’t even a Todd Haynes film at all, but a job of work.
It’s more than that. Maybe, speaking as a non-fan of much of Haynes’ career, it might be good to see this filmmaker doing more jobs of work. Dark Waters is indeed a melodrama, of the investigative kind, and Haynes navigates the somewhat conventional beats with confidence. But auteur-wise, it’s directly in line with Haynes’ two (to my mind) undeniable masterpieces, Safe and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. The three films are about poison, and the suffocating way the culture itself makes people malformed. Class, too, is very much a subject of all three films; the word “hick” provides one of the most lacerating and revealing moments in the new one.
Dark Waters puts Mark Ruffalo’s corporate lawyer on the trail of DuPont’s indefensible practices, especially as regards the miracle substance, Teflon. Making the case takes years, during which Ruffalo’s character continues his dogged trudge through the barriers that DuPont throws in his way. The dark-blue palette that Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman have created for the movie is maybe appropriate for the toxic mood, although it feels a little concept-heavy. Haynes has the tone down, though: TV-style storytelling shot through with simmering outrage.
Has Haynes turned into Stanley Kramer? I’m sure he hasn’t, although Dark Waters does betray a Kramer-esque tendency to indulge actors, even the great Bill Camp (as the farmer whose legal case, involving the poisoning of his cows, kicks off the David vs. Goliath story). On the upside, we get tasty things from Bill Pullman, acting up and having a heckuva time as a master-of-his-minor-realm attorney, and Mare Winningham, who does her customary thing of taking a tiny role and turning it into an acting masterclass (without ever losing the emotional point of the scene).
Dark Waters isn’t perfect, but it is timely at a moment when the population has mostly been lulled, cattle-like, into accepting and being grateful for the dominance of the powers that be. Right now that’s good enough.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.