Todd Haynes knows that the house reeks. One of the talented prophets of the New Queer Cinema wave of the early ’90s, he rather quickly went from making small, ambitious, somewhat academically oriented films like Poison and [Safe] to grander experiments like Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven. It wasn’t much longer until he was steering a new adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and enjoying even more time in the buzzy spotlight with Carol. The details of Haynes’ settings and subjects change from film to film, as with most directors, but his preoccupations have remained the same over the course of nearly 30 years: systematic marginalization, the poisonous effects of capitalism, the home as place of contagion, the Other navigating the world of the normative. Even with his latest film, the whistleblower thriller Dark Waters—which has been accused of being not very Todd Haynes-y, whatever that means—everything comes back home.
In Dark Waters, we follow corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), whose primary job is, for all intents and purposes, to find legal loopholes and excuses to protect large chemical companies, such as potential client DuPont. With a city job in Ohio, he has a nice home and burgeoning family. But a farmer (Bill Camp) in Parkersburg, West Virginia whose stock has been mysteriously dying comes knocking to ask Robert to turn away from the big corporate institution that provides him such personal security (two cars, private school tuition for the kids) so that he can return to the part of his past he usually sweeps beneath the rug. Through the tedium of paperwork and a case that lasts over a decade, Bilott pieces together a scandal about unregulated forever chemicals and Teflon and the illusion of safety—the American Dream—that’s been sold to us since the 1960s.
Home as metaphor for safety and solace has never been so straightforward for queer people. Home, rather, can be a place of fear, frustration, confusion, judgment, categorization. As early as Haynes’ experimental debut, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, an esoteric biopic using Barbie dolls, home was where the singer hid her eating disorder, where her self-loathing could root and begin to bloom. As Haynes would continue to explore throughout his career, the surfaces and textures that can be found in a home reveal everything, even in their mundanity: The tiny doll houses and the weedy doll bodies, whose cold hard “skin” is chipped away as Karen’s eating disorder takes a toll on her body, give a sense of derangement and detachment, conceiving of the world that women live in as both artificial and capable of true material consequences.
In one of the shorts in Haynes’ 1991 anthology film, Poison, a boy literally flies away from his family after shooting his abusive father. Using a sensationalist tabloid framework, Haynes presents the home as something to be invaded by the public, by intrusive and entitled outsiders, but also a place from which pests are to be ejected, or rejected. The “home” spreads wide, beyond the mere image of domesticity and suburbia; in Haynes’ vision, the home is for those who fall in line with authority and with what is accepted as normal in society. Haynes paints the United States as the home that designates what is both normal and normative; he also illustrates its paradoxical relationship between what is considered public and private. Poison’s tabloid aesthetic, featuring talking head interviews with neighbors and reenactments and dramatizations, suggests that all that is private but objectionable cannot only be made public, but can be exploited. Haynes keys in on a kind of spectacle of rejection and homophobia, the kind of entertainment that continues to find its way in the news cycle today.
That contradiction of safety and danger is found elsewhere in Haynes’ films, in the tangible alienation of [Safe], in which Julianne Moore’s Carol White develops an allergic reaction to the artifice, and stifling power, of domesticity. In the cooly curated and frostily designed box of a San Fernando Valley home, Carol begins to have seizures, nosebleeds, rashes from the constructed home life around her. It’s a world in which she’s conditioned to think she belongs, but one that ultimately purges her. Through Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce, Haynes has found ways to transform the home from a place of innovation to a place for personal trauma and betrayal, be it through a community of homemakers turning their back on those who diverge from conventionality, or through the woman whose complex relationship to motherhood, sexuality and enterprise is further problematized when the child becomes an adult with her own agency, capable of tangling herself within those dynamics as well.
Sometimes the only kind of home that’s safe is the one created between people, like that of Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) in Haynes’ Carol. In that case, the surfaces and spaces that matter are skin, hair, coats, hats and the proximity between bodies. Therese’s lack of assuredness dissipates the more time she spends with Carol, who also escaped conventional domesticity in favor for the little havens she creates with Therese on the road. In hotel rooms, they only have themselves and their secrets, and each touch feels like a part of themselves revealed for the other.
Haynes transposes the opaque surfaces of dull, domestic spaces to the world of corporate America with equally daunting fuzziness in Dark Waters. In the kitchen, where many of the chemicals poison residents and homemakers, Teflon becomes a spectre. For Haynes, the systems and institutions at play present themselves in multiple scales: as small as the pan in your dishwasher and as gigantic as an international company.
It recalls Haynes’ relationship to the legacy of AIDS, which informs nearly all of his films in some way, notably [Safe] and Poison. Here Dark Waters conjures the ghosts of corrupt pharmaceutical companies in the late ’80s and ’90s, reminds of their fraught relationship with patient testing and the safety of such drugs as AZT. The trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the people with the power to stop who didn’t, haunts the film. Those same companies with beloved slogans (“Better Living Through Chemistry”) embed themselves deeply into public consciousness, into communities, parasitically, tricking them into believing their success and sustainability is predicated on the success and sustainability of the company.
If Haynes’ career-long project is to situate the United States as a kind of “house,” one with rules and systems, one that keeps a watchful eye on its inhabitants, one that operates like an institution filled with other powerful institutions, then that house has the stench of secrets. Not just of how willfully chemical companies put people at risk, particularly those of Parkersburg, WV—the stench is the American Dream itself. The myth that Haynes has constantly interrogated and deconstructed, the promise of happiness, success and power, quickly erodes. Companies like DuPont can peddle that myth, even when harm is done. They reap the benefits and suffer none of the consequences.
Bilott’s conclusion is ultimately nihilistic—trust no one, not one institution or group or organization or community, except for yourself and the closest around you—but Haynes maintains that the most important conceptions of home still exist between loved ones, between allies, between communities. Even when the house stinks.