Todd Haynes has a filmography full of absolute gems. He’s a director able to balance stories with emotional gravitas and visual wonder; from the glitter splashed rock’n’roll of Velvet Goldmine to the muted and delicate palette of Carol. If you head into a Todd Haynes film, usually one could expect to experience a story of great heart and the treat of beautiful scenes. I wanted to like Dark Waters, and I stepped into the screening expecting to. As the film meandered through its two-hour runtime, I honestly found myself struggling to comprehend that this was even a Todd Haynes film at all.
The tricky thing with writing about Dark Waters as a film is not being able to ignore the fact it’s based on a very grim reality. The characters here are real people, meaning that the suffering was not an exaggeration for cinema but a mere truth of what actual people experienced. Dark Waters handles this truth delicately and doesn’t exploit the pain of the victims for the sake of dramatic effect. There’s a great sensitivity dealt, especially when the credits roll and the real-life cameos are acknowledged. This was a script of care that gave voice to the suffering these innocent people were knowingly put through. They got that right, at least.
If you randomly flicked on Dark Waters, you wouldn’t be wrong to blindly assume it to be a repeat showing of any number of procedural television series. As a film, it lacks its own identity and suffers from being exquisitely boring. Todd Haynes’ knows how to do unsettling and bleak, anyone who has seen 1995’s Safe knows this is something he’s already accomplished. So it’s rather confusing sitting through Dark Waters’ almost endless array of boardroom scenes with various suits and ties mumbling through key points of this harrowing story.
There’s a terribly ugly yellow colour grading throughout that became obvious and distracting. I found myself considering that perhaps it was purposeful to inspire a sickly feeling. But I also couldn’t help but wonder if it was purely to add some colour to otherwise painfully lifeless scenes.
There was one scene transition that was so good, it was out of place. A transition into an MRI scan that almost gave me whiplash. I took a moment of pause after it happened to come to terms with it. A shot much better suited for a sci-fi themed music video.
Mark Ruffalo leads the cast with an adequate performance, Anne Hathaway fulfils the supportive wife trope to a cartoonish degree. The rest of the cast are there going through the motions. For a story with so much emotional turmoil and weight, it’s an odd feeling struggling to recall any stand out moments of acting.
Every aspect of Dark Waters is competently made and crafted, but it never goes beyond being more than that. It’s a mighty shame since it’s an important story to tell and it deserves to be recognised. However, the delivery of the film was dreary and limp.
There’s that saying where the worst thing art can be is boring. And unfortunately, Dark Waters is boring. I love a good mood piece, I love a bleak film, but Dark Waters just drags through its own story. As much as the foreboding score by Marcelo Zarvos tries to give us a sense of dread, the film itself fails to ever deliver anything of the sort. Todd Haynes is a brilliant director but something is amiss here.
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins
Writer: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Canahan, (based on the New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich)