‘Safe,’ ‘Dark Waters,’ and the Real Viruses of American Culture

Todd Haynes’s 1995 psychodrama and 2019 legal thriller function as unsettling, prescient reminders of the real social contagions that plague everyday life.

Since its ominous emergence in February 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed much more than how quickly a virus can spread. Systemic racism, police brutality, the hollowness of celebrity activism, the disgraceful idiocy of negligent politicians — all of these issues have existed for forever, but are now at the forefront of our cultural discourse and probably for good reason. This rapidly growing airborne disease has forced us to take a hard look at our institutions, our leaders, our media consumption, and ourselves, in the hopes of building a more socially equitable and morally hygienic society than the one we came from. 

But as nationwide cases continue to surge due to hasty business reopenings and restless citizens refusing to wear masks, the future remains bleak and uncertain. How can we move forward if there are still deeply ingrained problems and deeply stupid people holding us back? Why are Americans in particular so bad at healing ourselves from this widespread public health crisis? 

With all of this doubt in the air, virus-related films have become a strange source of guidance. They have taken on greater meaning in our quasi-apocalyptic circumstances, operating as equally cathartic and unnerving glimpses into what various social factors could contribute to such a global disaster. Writer-director Todd Haynes, one of our greatest working filmmakers, knows a little something about this. He’s made not one but two movies — the 1995 psychodrama Safe and 2019’s legal thriller Dark Waters — that reflect our anxiety-soaked reality, where pervasive diseases are consistently downplayed and characters suffer the consequences as a result.

Both films function as unsettling, prescient reminders of the real social contagions that plague everyday life: Safe critiques the consumerism and conformity of late-stage capitalism, while Dark Waters confronts the complicity and indifference of seemingly unstoppable corporations. Though disparate in tone and thematic approach, these stories capture a universal feeling of dread and social alienation pertinent to this equally historic and depressing moment we’re presently experiencing. Safe and Dark Waters might not make for the most comforting of watches, considering our current grief-stricken climate, but their cautionary narratives can offer a sense of solace and clarity in a time of profound loss and disorienting social upheaval.

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Sony Pictures Classics

Of the two films, Safe is perhaps the most potent in speaking to the collective angst and paranoia following the coronavirus’s arrival. Set in the late 1980s, the plot follows a disillusioned L.A. housewife named Carol (Julianne Moore in one of her earliest and finest performances), whose affluent, sterile lifestyle is upended when she develops a mysterious, unidentifiable sensitivity to chemicals. She experiences a series of alarming symptoms — violent seizures, difficulty breathing, and unexpected nosebleeds. Receiving little help from those around her, she is led to move to Wrenwood, a remote community in the desert where other chemically sensitive people have sought refuge. 

Other than the presence of a lurking and debilitating virus that’s nearly impossible to contain, the most evident and relatable aspect from Safe appears in Haynes’s intense, visceral illustration of isolation. On a visual level, Haynes composes the majority of sequences using wide shots and long takes, transforming vacant parking lots, unassuming outdoor malls, and the glamorous interiors of expensive homes into menacing death traps. 

When she enters Wrenwood, Carol’s isolation becomes even more amplified, taking on an almost otherworldly quality. In contrast to the suburban artifice of the San Fernando Valley, the desert of Wrenwood is framed as if it were a distant, alien planet: a beautiful yet eerie landscape filled with barren mountains and grassless fields. The community’s cult-like leader, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), acts as Wrenwood’s supreme overlord, dictating empty messages about how the recovery process is contingent on a positive mindset. All the while, Carol and her hapless peers are essentially incapacitated, forced to accept his words and quarantine themselves from society at large. 

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Sony Pictures Classics

The camera captures all of this from a deliberate emotional remove, both shrinking the space around Carol to emphasize her quiet suffocation from her surroundings and expanding the space around her to highlight the loneliness of her experience. As Carol attempts to make sense of whatever is causing her sensitivity, the chemical triggers escalate to the point of ubiquity; everything around her is poison, no matter how hard she tries to suppress her condition. Even in a community of people suffering from similar symptoms, Carol finds herself unable to feel liberated from her affliction, ultimately succumbing to her ill-fated reality in the film’s haunting final moments.

This fear of infection and the desire for certainty are what seem to fuel present-day existential horror surrounding the coronavirus, of which everyone can become susceptible to as it threatens our immune systems and the normalcy of our everyday lives. Even more relevant, however, is Safe’s coded analogy for the AIDS crisis. Though AIDS is never explicitly mentioned in the film, the film’s subtext echoes the blame-driven stigma that pervaded the U.S. in the 1980s towards gay Americans, who were affected by a massive epidemic that public officials and government leaders ignored until it was too late. 

The parallels between Safe and today’s milieu feel almost too real. Public safety and basic healthcare have become politicized, the solitude of quarantine has turned us into antsy and powerless captives, and our President’s thoughtless, contrarian response to the coronavirus has rendered our country a boiling pot of fury and chaos. In a weird way, we’ve all become Carol. We’ve embraced the fetters of this very abnormal situation while still holding onto a hopeful belief that things will eventually get better when this is all over, whenever that may be.  

If Safe was bent on illuminating the detrimental impact of a victim-blaming culture through an intentionally detached lens, Dark Waters very much revels in its righteous indignation, condemning real-life environmental exploitation while championing the people most vulnerable to that destruction, and the ones seeking to end it.

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Focus Features

The story spans decades, from the 1970s all the way to the late Aughts, and centers its narrative on a corporate-turned-environmental lawyer, Robert Billiott (Mark Ruffalo), and his endless quest to link a deadly ailment to the chemical manufacturing plant, DuPont. After receiving a complaint from a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) regarding a number of unexplained cow deaths in Parkersburg, West Virginia, Robert investigates the matter and slowly learns of DuPont’s involvement in dumping toxic waste into the river near Tennant’s farm. Robert spends the next few years unearthing mountains of damning evidence that suggests DuPont was not only aware of their own actions, but concerted in their effort to keep their records as private as possible. 

Bolstered by a powerhouse cast and relatively detail-oriented approach, Dark Waters is galvanizing in its blistering thoroughness, a sharp social commentary that places a magnifying glass on the real perpetrators of systemic corruption. Here, the cause and transmission of viruses aren’t left ambiguous like in Safe. It’s made very clear from the get-go who enabled an irreversible disease to spread, and how deeply rooted the barriers are in overcoming the kind of individualist, capitalist companies responsible for such an inhumane crime. 

Though Haynes is not the screenwriter for Dark Waters, his directorial presence is still felt. He trades Safe’s gorgeously saturated compositions and creepy synth music for jaundiced, murky visuals and an orchestral score. His longtime collaborator, cinematographer Edward Lachman, shoots primarily in medium close-ups, sometimes incorporating negative space to juxtapose Robert’s predicament with the invisible yet powerful forces that he’s up against. Rather than simply show the effect of the ailment like in Safe, Dark Waters explains the gravity of corporate malfeasance in the same straightforward style as other “competence porn” dramas like Spotlight and Contagion.

Victor Garber (left) as "Phil Donnelly" and Mark Ruffalo (right)
Focus Features

Part of the film’s appeal is precisely this David-and-Goliath struggle. Robert’s Sisyphusian obsession is as thrilling as DuPont’s unbreakable bureaucracy is malicious. It evokes the passionate activist-led efforts that have been occurring these past few months, wherein fed-up Americans are demanding to dismantle rapacious institutions and industries that have been preying on marginalized groups for years. In that sense, we’ve also become like Robert, shocked and angered by the irreversible consequences of a depraved system, but simultaneously relentless in the pursuit of equity. 

Whether or not I’ve convinced you to watch Safe and Dark Waters is up to you, but these two films are incredibly effective in channeling both the cynicism and optimism that’s been oscillating since the pandemic began. Safe and Dark Waters are perfect companion pieces to one another: the former a disturbing yet fascinating satire with a downer of an ending, and the latter a heavy, yet sleekly made drama that finishes on a somewhat hopeful note. Even with their differences, both films seem to arrive at the same conclusion: the only thing scarier than a deadly virus are the people who don’t take it seriously. 

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