Todd Haynes has never made a movie that he hasn’t wanted to. That apparently includes Dark Waters, a fact-based thriller about a lawyer who organizes a class-action lawsuit against the deep-pocketed DuPont chemical company. In interviews, Haynes has talked about the feelings of shock and outrage that compelled him to adapt Nathaniel Rich’s 2016 New York Times Magazine exposé about DuPont’s ethical and ecological transgressions against the human and animal inhabitants of Parkersburg, West Virginia, where the water supply was contaminated over a period of decades by toxins leaked from a local chemical plant; it’s a story with wide-ranging implications about corporate greed and environmental negligence. But there’s still something weird about seeing ads for what looks like a glossy, standard-issue studio movie—and, more than that, a ’90s-style courtroom thriller à la A Few Good Men, filled with big, shouty speeches by big-name actors—and notice that it’s signed by the guy who started his career with a biopic of Karen Carpenter cast with Barbie dolls. At his best, Haynes is a daring stylist who attempts maneuvers that few of his peers would even try and even fewer could pull off. Conventionality is just about the only thing that isn’t in his skill set; why would somebody who can’t do ordinary even bother to try?
In terms of an overall timeline, it’s possible to group Haynes with Steven Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant; each member of this trio emerged toward the end of the 1980s at the vanguard of an American independent cinema striking back against the commercial and aesthetic hegemony of high-concept Hollywood. But where Soderbergh and Van Sant progressively made significant inroads into the world of studio filmmaking—working as directors-for-hire and even flirting with franchise status (as with Soderbergh and the Ocean’s series)—Haynes worked more infrequently, scrupulously controlling his industrial trajectory and cultivating an outlier status less easily reconciled with the mainstream.
At the very beginning of his career, Haynes styled himself as a provocateur, producing a short film during his MFA at Bard College entitled Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story that received only a few public festival screenings and ended up as one of the most scandalous bootlegs in the history of VHS. Walking on a thin line between empathy and exploitation, Haynes dramatized his eponymous subject’s fatal battle with anorexia nervosa via a stop-motion animation style employing Mattel figurines—a tragedy set in the Uncanny Valley of the Dolls. The tension between the story’s predictable biopic beats and the incongruous grotesquerie of the used-and-abused Barbie “playing” Karen—her plastic limbs steadily whittled away across the duration of the film—makes for a supremely uncomfortable viewing experience. Superstar’s brilliance lies in how its mix of satire and naivete discombobulate audience responses. The film angered Mattel and infuriated Karen’s brother Richard, who successfully sued for copyright infringement in 1990, a verdict that removed the film from circulation even as it solidified its legendary status among cultists.
Haynes’s follow-up, Poison (1991), used a triptych structure to pastiche a series of older cinematic styles (documentary, horror, prison movie) and critique the logic of contemporary homophobia; because the movie was partially subsidized by the National Endowment for the Arts, it came under fire from religious conservatives and lobbyists appalled at its explicit content. They were also misinformed: While Poison doesn’t remotely hold back in terms of queer imagery—including several passages of hyperbolic eroticism that seem to parody heterosexual male anxieties about gay sex—it wasn’t nearly as explicit as its detractors claimed. But in conjunction with the furor around Superstar, Haynes suddenly became a kind of poster boy for transgression in American cinema, rebutting charges of obscenity and articulately defending himself against pariah status during a memorable interview with Larry King.
An instant landmark of the New Queer Cinema—and a forerunner of sorts to the joyful postmodernism of Quentin Tarantino—Poison was, like Superstar, more notorious than it was actually ever seen. Haynes’s true commercial breakthrough was a movie that could be taken as Superstar’s live-action twin: 1995’s Safe, starring Julianne Moore as a woman whose sensitivity to everyday chemicals results in her physical and psychological deterioration. As a metaphor for the debilitating pressures of modern life—and also arguably the “invisibility” of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s—Safe was sly and suggestive, but its power resided in the lived-in physicality of Moore’s performance as the indelibly named Carol White. As in Superstar, Haynes used Safe’s nightmarish scenario to chip away at his star’s pristine, porcelain beauty, and Moore’s exposed-nerve acting credibly showed the horror of what lay beneath. The pair would team up again seven years later for the superb Far From Heaven, a post-modern homage to technicolor melodramas of the 1950s casting Moore as a suburban housewife drawn to her African American gardener (Dennis Haysbert) to the chagrin of her controlling (and closeted) husband (Dennis Quaid). Where Safe orbited a character destroyed by exposure to the world outside her door, Far From Heaven imagined a woman who comes into her own outside her social and romantic comfort zone—until the realities of her time and place come crashing down to entrap her once more.
Haynes’s fascination with the past—its styles and textures as well as its social codes—informs the majority of his filmography. In addition to Superstar, he’s made two other experimental rock biopics, each awash in fetishistic period detail: 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, a study of a fictional, adrogynous glam rock star modelled on David Bowie and Marc Bolan that doubles structurally as a remake of Citizen Kane, and 2007’s I’m Not There, which filtered the life, persona, and music of Bob Dylan through six surrogate characters representing different sides of the singer. The latter may be Haynes’s most conceptually audacious movie, organized through a series of radical visual, narrative, and tonal shifts to capture and contextualize Dylan’s own carefully stage-managed mutability; the participation of Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, and Heath Ledger in the project suggested that the director’s critical acclaim had resulted in brand-name status. Notwithstanding its starry cast and technical elaborateness—including multiple sequences re-creating passages from Dylan’s previous movie appearances in Dont Look Back and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid—I’m Not There was palpably the work of the same playful, cerebral sensibility that sparked Superstar, a meta-movie exploding its own form at every opportunity.
The other side of Haynes’s journeying into the past is represented by his literary melodramas: a five-part HBO miniseries derived from James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce and a feature film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 pulp romance The Price of Salt entitled Carol. The latter is one of the most beloved films of the 2010s, canonized by critics and buttressed by a wave of online memeification; the loaded looks and pregnant pauses between Rooney Mara’s aspiring photographer and Cate Blanchett’s titular socialite (who threatens her marriage and family life by initiating an affair with the younger woman) are the stuff that GIFs are made of. Carol’s carefully brocaded evocation of the 1950s rhymes closely with Far From Heaven’s stifled romance, but the tone is less arch and knowing; instead of appropriating tropes from Douglas Sirk, Haynes opts for something more realistic, declining for once to put quotes around the images or the characterizations. As good as Carol is, though, it’s outstripped by Mildred Pierce, which contains Kate Winslet’s greatest performance as the self-martyring restaurateur manipulated in equal measures by her male lovers and her vindictive daughter, a role the actress actually manages to steal (or at least borrow) from Joan Crawford in the 1945 original. Between its epic scope, implicit capitalist critique, and astonishing climactic swoop into Gothic horror-movie territory (a scene involving Evan Rachel Wood as the teenaged Veda playing the piano is the stuff of nightmares), Mildred Pierce showed the director at the peak of his considerable powers.
Even when Haynes’s instincts fail him a bit, the results are fascinating, as in 2017’s Wonderstruck, a bespoke kid-lit adaptation juxtaposing two narratives—one set in 1927, the other in 1977—featuring lost children in New York City. The sheer intricacy of the film’s construction, including the overlap between its parallel story lines, is in keeping with Haynes’s precision, but he doesn’t quite reach his intended tone of wistful enchantment; you can feel the strain behind the whimsy. Regardless of whether it fully works, Wonderstruck is a movie made with evident passion and engagement—an attempt to raise the standards of family entertainment rather than to capitulate to the assembly line of lavishly reproduced intellectual properties. And near the end, the revelation of a fantastically detailed scale model of New York returns Haynes to the elegant miniaturization of Superstar—a possibly unconscious callback that serves to underline both the remarkable surface variations and underlying continuity of his body of work.
So far, critics have had a hard time locating Haynes’s signature in Dark Water; early reviews describe a movie made in curiously self-effacing style (alternate title: He’s Not There). And yet in a recent New Yorker profile, it’s clear that the director’s process on his first official studio movie has been consistent with his past work, while a recent Q & A with the Metrograph’s website featured Haynes speaking in depth about Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men as an example of an authentically artful docudrama. “There’s a constant tension between the commercial and the artistic,” says Haynes, “[and] that was the impurity I elected to exploit and investigate as a filmmaker … I think that says more and reveals more about who we are, and the complex relationship that audiences have to spectacle and narrative.” It’s possible that Dark Waters will prove to be the odd film out on Haynes’s résumé. Or it could be that we’re collectively underestimating an artist who to this point has proved incapable of being anybody but himself.