Why Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters is the Perfect Film for Right Now

Dark Waters director Todd Haynes explains why whistleblowers are more needed than ever.

Mark Ruffalo and Todd Haynes on the set of Dark Waters
Focus Features

This weekend brings us the release of Dark Waters, the eighth feature film directed by the Oscar-nominated Todd Haynes. In the film, Mark Ruffalo plays lawyer Rob Bilott, a rising star at a large corporate law firm whose portfolio is dominated by the chemical companies they defend. But Bilott unexpectedly finds himself drawn to the case of Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a Parkersburg, West Virginia farmer who comes to Bilott’s Cincinnati office to plead for help.

Some 200 cows on Tennant’s property have died, their behavior erratic before their deaths, and their bodies riddled with hideous growths. Tennant lays the blame at the feet of the DuPont plant that’s been in the town for decades. Having grown up nearby, Bilott soon discovers that DuPont, the seemingly all-American company that has provided jobs and economic support for the area, has been poisoning the water for untold years–and that is just the beginning of what he ultimately uncovers.

Although he has the support of his supervisor at the firm, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), Bilott puts everything at risk–his family, his job, his life–to claim justice for Wilbur Tennant, the people of Parkersburg, and perhaps even more human beings than any of us can imagine.

Haynes’ eclectic career started in 1991 with the surreal anthology film, Poison, before breaking out in 1995 with Safe. He has followed that with the glam rock phantasmagoria Velvet Goldmine (1998), the lush but subversive period melodrama Far from Heaven (2002), the unconventional Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007), the period romance Carol (2015) and the children’s mystery Wonderstruck (2017).

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With Dark Waters, he enters into the realm of the kind of classic procedural thriller in which one individual stands alone against a monolithic government or corporation and tries to bring the truth to light–in other words, a whistleblower, a figure that is essential to a democracy but is now endangered by our own government, as we discuss in the below interview.

Den of Geek: You kind of shift from film to film. Your last movie was a children’s film, so I’m curious what called out to you about this?

Todd Haynes: For me, every project is kind of new, or I like to think of them as a new challenge and some people will put different movies I’ve made into the same categories perhaps, but for me, they’re different in all kinds of ways. I feel like for me it’s a process of continuing to learn about cinema and telling stories onscreen and approaching each thing with a freshness and a sense of openness, and a sense that I’ve never tackled something like this before. And this certainly was that.

But at the same time, this is a genre of movie that I have had this curious fascination with. There’s a handful of them that I can watch and revisit repeatedly like All the President’s Men or The Insider, Michael Mann’s beautiful movie, and Mike Nichols’ movie Silkwood with Meryl Streep. This story had all of the sort of qualities as these other films, because all of these films are true stories. They end in different ways. Some of them are legal stories, some of them are journalistic. And in the case of Silkwood, it’s just about a plutonium worker who becomes sort of enlightened about the status of workers’ rights within a nuclear power plant.

But they all share this sense of incredible cost that the individuals at the center of the stories undergo and have to sort of pay for, often for things they never expected to take on. Stories that they never knew existed. They’re kind of in the dark at the beginning and they start to find the shape of the story in the dark, piece by piece. In most cases it’s overwhelming, and the kind of systems of power and corruption that it reveals are things that none of them are prepared for or could imagine. That amazing sort of lonely process, I guess, is something that I think has moved me and compelled me in stories like this, and this one was just astonishing. The story that Rob discovers is enormous and global. But what he went through and what the people around him who he brought on board to take on DuPont, what they all went through is humbling, and something that I think we can all take inspiration from.

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Something else that the movie touches on, and I think you do see this in movies like All the President’s Men or Spotlight, is actually the idea of doing the work. You have scenes of Mark sitting in that room with all those piles of boxes of papers, sorting through them. Was that something you wanted to emphasize?

Absolutely. That sense of labor. Because these movies are really about process and they’re about beginning somewhere and having it take you somewhere you can’t possibly have imagined. But that takes a dutiful attention to whatever the process is. If it’s journalists, it’s about corroborating stories among people you’re interviewing and getting on the phone and surprising people in the middle of the night. But it’s also trying to find the little gaps in cover-ups that start coming from, in this case, the government.

It’s the same thing with Rob’s journey in this story. He began with some resistance to the story. It wasn’t the kind of people he takes on or represents. He was a corporate defense attorney, not a plaintiff’s attorney. It wasn’t something that his firm was set up to take on either and the reputation of the firm would be at stake.

But the deeper he went into it, the more he couldn’t turn back. And the bigger the story became, it crossed moral and ethical lines that he couldn’t have imagined other companies crossing, at a basic level of just decency and the freedom to do what you want for the bottom line, and for financial gain exclusively at the cost of public health. I think him and Tom Terp and ultimately, of course, everybody who was victimized by this contamination in Parkersburg and all of the districts that played a part in the bigger class action case, these people are incensed by what they see. There’s a point at which you just can’t go along anymore and you have to draw the line.

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Is there something fortuitous about doing a movie now about a whistleblower, when all of a sudden people in the highest corridors of power are attacking the whole idea of one?

Yeah. Obviously we couldn’t have foreseen exactly what was going to be happening with the Trump administration at this point. The basic protections of whistleblowers within our democratic system of government are well established, and they are there for a reason. They need to protect the identity of whistleblowers and allow their testimony, because these people risk everything in coming forward. If they don’t have basic protections, obviously, it completely freezes the ability for oversight and transparency and pushing back against abuses of power. This is what separates a democracy from an autocracy, as well as the freedom of the press and the freedom of truth to be printed and investigative journalism, and divided government and congressional oversight and all these things that are all on systematic red alert these days.

It’s alarming how persistent the presumption is that all of these things don’t matter and are part of a partisan position and how normalized this behavior is becoming to the public. So it’s really tricky to stay shocked and appalled and engaged, and figure out how to expend our energies in fighting back and where to place those energies. It’s a really perilous time right now. And this movie reminds us of what’s at stake in ways that are all too true and all too persistent.

In a strange way, even though they’re so completely different in so many ways, is there a sort of a kingship to Safe in the sense that there are things in both films that are part of everyday life that end up being detrimental to our health?

Well yeah, it’s a question that has come up and it’s not something that was necessarily driving my approach to the story because I felt like, again, they’re very, very different kinds of stories. One is really fiction of course, and it was really taking on the language of illness and in many ways the language of recovery and how that puts the individual on the line as the person responsible for their own illness and takes away a look at social factors. That was one aspect of the critique that was being explored in Safe. But it’s a film that lends itself much more to sort of a metaphoric application of what this idea of chemical contamination is and questions the veracity of the illness that she’s describing and how much you can sort of attribute it to an alienation in general in society.

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Some of that metaphoric reading I think can be applied to Dark Waters. When a chemical has invaded the globe, to the degree that PFOA has, where 99% of living creatures on the planet are now infected with it, that level of ubiquity of a contaminant is so enormous and overwhelming and unfathomable that it’s almost impossible to not extrapolate metaphor to it in a way and consider it on a par with other pervasive systems that invade us without our permission, like patriarchy or capitalism or whatever you want to say. But it’s also an absolutely real truthful fact and it came from a single company and a single product and the profit motive that motivated that company’s actions. So, of course, movies are there for people to interpret in all kinds of ways and apply to their lives in different ways.

The other interesting thing about Dark Waters is that this is a very linear, straightforward narrative and I think you’re known for narratives that play with time and go back and forth in a nonlinear fashion. Did the material call for that kind of structure?

Well the material did call for a progressive linear structure and to feel the weight of the years bearing down on the subjects at hand and their fight. But many of my films have a linear structure. Safe has a linear structure; Far From Heaven has linear structure; Carol has a linear structure. I find them all to be unique in their own ways, and different. People will put Far From Heaven and Carol in the same category because its central female characters at the core of movies set in the 1950s. But to me they’re stylistically completely different kinds of movies and experiences. There’s a tremendous amount of restraint in Carol and there’s a tremendous amount of stylistic excess and artifice in Far From Heaven. So you have to look beyond the content or even the linear form, I think, sometimes to characterize what a movie is doing and how it’s doing it.

This movie brings with it a true life story, but also a tradition of storytelling in movies that have a certain compression and a certain burden and a certain sense of peril that these characters undergo, and a kind of stigma attached to what it means to be a truth teller. I think stigma is something that I’ve also been exploring all along in different ways from film to film.

Dark Waters is out in theaters now.

Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye