Todd Haynes Uses Genre Simplicity to His Advantage in ‘Dark Waters’

Genre films have always gotten a bad rap. Even when they are praised, it usually feels like a backhanded compliment — “I turned off my brain and enjoyed the ride,” or “It was just a really simple and fun film” are often used to offer both praise and dismissal in equal measure. But there is power in simplicity. In Dark Waters, Todd Haynes knows when it is necessary, and how to harness it for the benefit of both the film and its audience. This is an impressive feat.

Mark Ruffalo stars as “Robert Bilott” in director Todd Haynes’ DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

On the surface, Dark Waters is a basic “based on a true story” whistleblower genre film with its main source being yet another New York Times article (sounds a little like another popular film that Mark Ruffalo has produced and starred in) about the uncovering of illegal and inhumane practices by DuPont Chemical. Robert Billot (Mark Ruffalo) is an environmental lawyer for a large law firm in Ohio who represents multiple large chemical companies. One day, a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, upon referral from Billot’s own grandmother, contacts him to ask if he can help represent him against DuPont, convinced that the chemical runoff from their factory has poisoned the creek that his cattle drink from and ultimately killed them. Thinking that he was just doing a simple favor for his grandmother, Billot agrees to look into it. From there onwards, everything spirals. Dark Waters follows Billot as his worldview, once closed off by privilege and ignorance, begins to expand. It is a story not only of capitalistic greed, but also of class solidarity.

At first glance, it seems that Billot is in a class above the townspeople of Parkersburg. It becomes abundantly clear, however, that they are both held captive by the same capitalist system, which is represented explicitly by DuPont. Billot’s realization of this is the catalyst of the film. It is his recognition of Dupont as a shared threat which spurs action. To illustrate, Haynes deploys an underwater shot which pays clear homage to Jaws. A woman kicks her legs in the water as the camera swims slowly towards her, up from the murky depths. In both Jaws and Dark Waters, this is used to provoke anxiety in the audience. We are made to identify with the woman-in-the-water, while simultaneously positioned as the threat which lurks beneath the surface. The tension between these two roles permeates the entirety of the film. 

Human bodies threatened by disease are often used as visible indicators of a broader social disease. The main threat is not kidney cancer or ulcerative colitis, although these are direct and quantifiable results of DuPont’s careless poisoning. It is the murky, polluted social order that we all swim in, where everyone seems to have a stake in protecting the status quo, despite the very real physical damage that protecting it incurs on us. Whether it is the lawyer who defends chemical companies and is told by his bosses that he will ruin their credibility as a firm, or the poor blue collar residents of Parkersburg who depend on those same chemical companies to provide them job security, capitalism is a system of which escape seems impossible.

Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) shows Robert Billot (Ruffalo) his desolated farm.

Perhaps Dark Waters‘ most impressive feat is that it started production in January of 2019, and premiered in theaters by November of the same year. That is an extremely small window of time to complete a film and not have it turn out like a college undergrad’s short film thesis project. It was done with expediency because its message is pertinent. There is an extreme sense of urgency to this film as our environment begins to decline more rapidly every day.

Films about whistleblowers often serve as a re-kindling. I, like most people of my generation, am aware of the evils of large corporations and the way that they are destroying not just us, but our entire planet. It is almost a natural reaction for me to cynically roll my eyes at films like this – “Yeah, I already know. The world is shit, it’s falling apart, everything is awful,” – but when I sit with it a little longer, I recognize that this film was not made to shock me. It was made to shock people like those living in Parkersburg. It is a film for people who do not realize the extent of the damage. If you are already talking about the collapse of our planet from the actions of the elite, the film feels like a retreading. Big surprise, chemical companies are awful heathens of the never ending soul destroyer we call capitalism. If all you know is that a bunch of people won’t shut up about something called the “Green New Deal,” and that the ice caps are melting, then this film may just be your wake up call.

In the Q&A following the film, Mark Ruffalo described Dark Waters as “a case study in what we’re up against.” This is exactly Dark Waters’ primary purpose: to showcase the threat that we as a society have to grapple with, and the ways that we play into the system that is the core cause of this threat. We are all implicated.

To German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a frequently cited source of inspiration for Haynes and his work, the simpler a story is, the truer it is.” Haynes understands, as Fassbinder explains, that at some point “films have to stop being films, being stories, and have to come alive, so that people will ask themselves: ‘what about me and my life?’” Simplicity is not a flaw, but an asset. The story of Dark Waters itself, although riddled with confusing jargon and complex laws, is a simple one. Environmental law is complex and confusing on purpose – so that nobody asks questions and simply trusts the people in control. This is a complicated and terrifying story told in a simple and succinct way as a service to its audience and, on a much greater scale, to a society otherwise ignorant not only of what is happening around us, but of the role we ourselves play in it. To understand it, to apply it to our lives and be aware of it, is to begin to break the cycle and strip those responsible of their power. Dark Waters’ power lies in its simplicity.

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