Environmental Horror


(versão em português aqui)

Most of the reactions to Todd Haynes’ new film Dark Waters seem to center in its conventional status, its position as a film Haynes made as a favor for his friend Mark Ruffalo, not a real Haynes film, but a failed Oscar bait project. There’s two things to observe in such descriptions: first, a certain suspicious towards a kind of political minded film, one that comes from a fair lack of patience about films who use its important subject matter as a crutch, if it is true Dark Waters is an important movie that knows it is an important movie, that isn’t on itself neither a good or bad thing (see also both the good and bad films from Ken Loach). Second, the accusation of conventionality is rather weird for me. It is true Haynes started his career as a provocative artist with movies like Poison (a good title for Dark Waters by the way), but he made a conscious decision towards accessibility a long time ago. None of Haynes work of the past two decades is particularly radical, films like Far From Heaven and Carol invest heavily in how they express longing and fear, but do so while operating under very recognizable narratives beats. When his HBO remake of Mildred Pierce got a cold reception that was more due to the visual illiteracy of most TV criticism than any radical gesture, the problem was much more the miniseries playing as unabashed melodrama instead of doubling down on sign posts of prestige. Only I’m Not There among Haynes late work does play against conventional narrative structures and if what matters in all the others is his manner, it is worth pointing out that it has more to do with an intensification of feelings than his background as a semiotics specialist. Haynes work traffics in emotions more than ideas and as such Dark Waters is a success.

It is not like Haynes can’t smuggle strong pointed commentary to the films margins, there’s a very good scene in which Ruffalo’s lawyer is at a gala whose only non-white presences are the black men working as waiters, for instance, that goes along away towards establishing his privileged existence. Most of the time, Dark Waters operates from a very single-minded feeling: a horror of recognition and the paranoia that comes on its wake. Ruffalo takes a case against a corporation knowing poisoning water and follows it through two decades. It might be useful to compare it to two earlier Ruffalo vehicles. Dark Waters has more to do with Zodiac with its emphasis on long time procedural and all-encompassing evil than with Oscar winner Spotlight. I mostly liked the later, but it has nothing on its mind beyond a fine presentation of a journalistic investigation, it is a functional narrative and proud of it (the biggest flaw is exactly how little it truly cares for the abuse victims beyond lynchpins of a narrative). The images couldn’t be more simple and clean, the moral outrage a value on itself, those who suffered mostly consigned to a safe off-screen existence. By contrast, Dark Waters is a paranoid thriller, a movie about privilege getting eaten away. Ruffalo isn’t some activist lawyer whose standing against abuse we are supposed to cheer, but a vessel who is forced to deal with his own limitations.

Dark Waters is presented in a first person plural that might be accused of being political naive, but is very urgent. We are getting poisoned every day, our time is running short. It is language very close to current environmental movement that rarely shows up like this in movies. Some of the weakest scenes in the film are the home scenes, with Anne Hathaway settled with the standard helpful long-suffering wife (moments when the film suffers from lack of imagination), but there’s something very effective in her anxiety, the certainty that the poisoned well will ask its bill from her kids. Dark Waters is focused not in the gratification of current fight, but the fear of what is to come.

The film is divided in two halves. The first is a detective story, an investigation on the roots of poison. The back half is a horror story, an exploration of the consequences of poison. It moves from the certainty that something is wrong, to the anxiety of knowledge. It is no accident that the film starts with a dread-filled prosaic scene with teenagers preparing to get into the lake in the 70s, a scene that could belong to any revolt of the nature horror movie since The Birds (and also brings to mind the opener of the already mentioned Zodiac). From early on, the film establishes its stakes. What one registers of Dupont isn’t an army of lawyers like the opponents in similar films, but Victor Gerber executive friendly reassuring smile in the early scenes and this constant sense of menace. Dark Waters often follows Ruffalo alone in scenes that reinforce his anxiety and paranoia (Ruffalo gets to act alone an unusual amount of time here). In a 70s film the character would be worried that some dangerous type might soon approach him, but in Dark Waters the source of danger is environment itself, what can one do when what is scary is in the air? Everything here moves towards this mix of knowledge and trembling. Much like Haynes earlier masterpiece Safe (1994), Dark Waters present itself as environmental horror.

Haynes and his great cinematographer Ed Lachman combine for many disturbing moments. Scenes of a man driving a car or sitting at his kitchen are taken by menace. The desolation of the farm scenes adds a sorrowful sense of economic despair. Lachman lightning is good at giving most places be it lawyer offices, middle class homes or diners the same sense of dead end. The environment seems to always engulf the characters. Every scene operates against a ticking clock. Time is all used up. Lachman images tend to isolate Ruffalo. He is less taken by the burden of the case, but is sort of a 21st century version of Roddy Piper’s character in John Carpenter’s They Live after he puts on his dark glasses. After he can see what is going on, there’s nothing else on his vision. The big mid-movie scene with the lawyer explaining first to his wife, then his boss, then his client what Dupont was doing operates under a similar principle. The truth as a form of horror. Thriller mechanics used to advance the film social agenda. The film is better than given credit in dealing with the class warfare matters surrounding environmental problems, the different ways everyone is affected by it and how some pay a bigger price by the abuses of the powerful.

That scene ends with the client (very well played by Bill Camp) refusing a civil trial against Dupont, but asking Ruffalo to “throw them all in jail”.  Dark Waters operates from such anger. Most similar movies are reassuring narratives, despite the impossible odds, the system does works.  The plucky lawyer and/or activist will get to the truth in the end. Dark Waters is a present tense story devoid of much triumphalism, it is a tale of ongoing disaster whose every small victory seems far too irrelevant in the large scheme of a parade of doom. It helps that Haynes and Ruffalo get a very particular real life story in their hands, the real Robert Billot wasn’t Paul Newman in The Verdict, but a junior partner in the kind of major law firm that usually defends Dupont, he doesn’t get fired for his activism but get at least some amount of support, he has resources, multiple veteran lawyers at his side during trial, all this actually amount to a strong sense of uselessness, the idea that how society organize its thinking about environment is just a small palliative for an existential matter. We are going to go extinct while still giving the Duponts of the world small fines. Dark Waters covers two decades and much like Zodiac it is very good at the fits and starts plodding realities of long term investigations. It is intentional dispiriting.  The poison here is literal, existential and institutional. The horror couldn’t be more real.

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