' ' Cinema Romantico: Dark Waters

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Dark Waters

“Dark Waters” is director Todd Haynes changing the key of 1970s paranoia thrillers. It’s as conspiracy-minded, yes, but in the aftermath of Watergate those conspiracies tied directly back to The Government. In “Dark Waters”, the black helicopter briefly glimpsed in the sky represents not The Government but Big Business, demonstrating how the former now bows to the latter. Companies, after all, like DuPont, will lie right to your face, make your life better even as they are making your life worse, daring you to look beneath the waters, literally and figuratively, to see how they are poisoning you even as they put food on your table. Robert Bilot (Mark Ruffalo), corporate defense attorney, he looks.

“Dark Waters” opens in Parkersburg, West Virginia as three drunk teenagers climb a fence at the DuPont Chemicals Company and go swimming. The scene is conspicuously set in 1975, the same year “Jaws” was released, and the scene is not so much an homage to Steven Spielberg’s iconic opening as an apocalyptic remixing, the lurking monster not a shark nor some prehistoric creature but the water itself, a contaminated landfill. Flash forward twenty years and a Parkersburg farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), bum rushes the office of Rob, who has just been made partner, a true to life detail that nevertheless spotlights how effortlessly the screenplay of Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa ramps up tension at every turn, committing to classic reversals of fortune to maintain drama every step of the way. Wilbur knows Rob’s grandmother and though the latter, as he explains in a compassionate tone of voice rather than outraged, defends chemical companies, the anecdotal evidence feels as overwhelming as the actual evidence will prove to be.

At first, Rob just sort of nudges DuPont in the ribs, conveyed in Ruffalo’s almost apologetic demeanor as he consults with one of their execs, Phillip Donnelly (Victor Garber). Eventually, though, Rob comes face to face with the truth, a harrowing scene in which he gazes out at Wilbur’s pasture cum graveyard, the vertical lines of the frame seeming to cast Bilot on the opposing side of the truth. And though the chilly hues of this scene epitomize the outdoor scenes, both rural and urban, with indoor scenes warmer in their lighting, gradually the interiors take on the same sort of icy blue, mirroring Rob’s journey of discovery. That journey is laid out in an indelible montage where Rob explains the sordid history of Teflon for his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), recited not in a courtroom but in his kitchen, said not triumphantly but bleakly, the camera closing in on the characters as they stand motionless around the kitchen table, the center of the home, quietly evoking how that poison has seeped into the life of every American family.

This montage demonstrates Haynes’s propensity for employing and subverting the sort of devices typical to similar legal dramas. By my count, there is only one A Ha! Moment, in which some everyday item (in this case, a children’s book), helps crack a case within a case, the screenplay otherwise allowing the facts to credibly lead the way. Most impressively, “Dark Waters” manages to subvert the Supportive Spouse archetype, a rare feat. Granted, the script does not lend much shading to Sarah’s own life but it simultaneously conveys her own lack of dimension is because his life is tethered to his, not simply his rock but in this with him. Indeed, when the real-world implications become clear, Sarah encourages Rob to keep going. And in a late scene, when overwork leads Rob to the hospital, she calls his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) on the carpet, seen in a long shot of the hospital corridor where, for a second, you think he will exit the scene only to have her pull him right back in. What’s more, Terp, in just a handful of scenes, is convincingly drawn, attuned as much to principles, and the firm’s lack of them, as to the bottom line.

As Rob, Ruffalo is perfectly cast, not for his real-life environmental activism but because of how ably he embodies in his very physicality the idea of an immovable object. It is not simply how he is frequently placed alone in long shots, either at conference tables in the office or at the kitchen table at home, but how his hunched posture seems to embody the very essence of carrying such a massive burden. There are plenty of facts to be uncovered, certainly, but “Dark Waters” evinces not so much an untangling of a conspiratorial web, a la Woodward and Bernstein, as a stubborn perseverance to wait Big Business and its minions out.

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