Dark Waters (2019)

As I hope is evident in my week focusing on films about history, the engagement with historical events is not one that is just about a discreet set of events separated away in the past. The forces that have shaped history continue into the present, as their legacies are manifested in behaviour and actions, but sometimes too filmic engagement with history is a prod to current events. For example the events portrayed in this film, which stretch back decades into the mid-20th century, are ongoing; even the legal case it documents hasn’t been concluded. These are urgent issues that will have an effect on our future, and so the film is used as a way to make those decisions more relevant and personable. (And as usual in such cases, the filmmakers have got Mark Ruffalo in for that.)


Todd Haynes has made some of my favourite films in the last few decades but I can’t claim this one is up there with them, largely because it cleaves so heavily to a very specific genre formula, and it’s not a genre I hugely love (the legal procedural thriller). It’s one of those issues-driven movies — the ones that Mark Ruffalo certainly seems to have done a few of recently (such as Spotlight) — and it’s all very efficiently despatched. Ruffalo plays a lawyer taking a huge American chemical company (DuPont) to task for the untold damage they’ve done not just to thousands of people they employed making the chemicals for Teflon, but also those who lived near the plant in West Virgnia, not to mention possibly every single human and living creature on the planet who has been just a little bit poisoned by the actions of them and other massive chemical conglomerates whose only interest — literally, their only apparent interest — has been in protecting the billions of dollars of profits they have been making. The fact that this fight is ongoing even at the time of the film’s making is just part of the reason for it to exist, and though it may not wow anyone as a film, it’s a story that’s worth telling and is gripping in its details all the same.

Dark Waters film posterCREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on the article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich); Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 5 March 2020.

Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).