Today’s news often leaves little to be happy about. Spikes in carbon emissions from rainforests and permafrost have shaken previous climate models, leading experts to predict we have far less time than planned to halt catastrophic global warming. Flint, Michigan still has undrinkable water, and the World Health Organisation has found microplastics in potable water around the world. Add in the social and environmental exploitation of late-stage capitalism and it is hard not to feel vulnerable. The messages are dire – and seem to be largely ignored by those in power.

Todd Haynes’ latest film Dark Waters, in cinemas this week, is an appropriate dramatic exposé for these times, as a corporate lawyer turns on DuPont after he discovers they’ve been hiding evidence of toxic chemicals leaking into waterways. While Dark Waters is based on a real case, this is a familiar topic for Haynes: his 1995 film Safe – a fictive psychological thriller about one woman’s mysterious, incurable illness – still feels remarkably timely in its anxieties. The mystery of a California housewife with a seemingly picture-perfect life whose inexplicable symptoms drive her into seclusion is deliberately ambiguous and meticulously crafted, resulting in an atmosphere of overwhelming, all-pervasive dread.


Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classics

Carol White (Julianne Moore) believes her ailment to be Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), which indirectly links to pollution and environmental degradation. She is constantly exhausted, breaks into uncontrollable coughing when exposed to highway fumes, gets a nosebleed when going for her perm, has an asthma-like attack at a friend’s house, and eventually goes into convulsions at the dry cleaners. It’s a terrifying existence, inexplicable to her husband, son, and friends. Moore’s performance captures a physical and mental fragility and confusion as she struggles with everyday situations, capturing the despair from a loss of self-determination without the strength to question or stop it.

Safe’s chilling staying power is enhanced by Haynes’ deliberate ambiguity and observational style. The camera is consistently unobtrusive, passively observing Carol’s reactions and often staying wide for unnervingly long shots. At first, nothing out of the ordinary happens – early in the film, Carol orchestrates the delivery of a new sofa, and then frets about the colour. Her exhaustion is present, but nothing noteworthy. Then, these prolonged views more obviously highlight the pervasive, incomprehensible threat Carol faces, as it captures her increasingly unsettling symptoms and behaviour. In a film full of stress and uncertainty, Carol’s collapse at a baby shower stands out. As she struggles to breathe in contrast to the children’s arts and crafts and bubbly parental chatter around her, Haynes’ locked perspective creates a distance between Carol and the viewer. The focus stays on her actions and reactions rather than her thoughts. But instead of alienating the audience, Haynes’ restraint emphasises the isolation Carol finds herself in, heightening the unsettling nature of her illness.

Notably, regardless of Carol’s conviction, Haynes does not give MCS as the conclusive answer. There is a strong case to be made that the illness is all in Carol’s head. Her symptoms could be genuine reactions to her environment, or the sign of an undiagnosed disease – or they could be psychosomatic responses to perceived impurities, irritants, and stressors. Perhaps the constraints of housewifery have physically manifested, in a symbolic bodily revolt against patriarchal and heteronormative standards. Indeed, the film would have echoes of satire were it not so sympathetic. Externally, Carol fits the current mold of the affluent white woman who imagines malaise and chases the latest fad cure. But a genuine bewilderment and grief come through Moore’s expert performance. The extreme lengths to which she goes in search of health and safety rob her of any semblance of a normal life, proving their necessity for her survival.

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Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classics

In any other film, the psychosomatic would be the most unnerving – if your head can trick you, what will it make you do? In Safe, the environmental anxiety is worse. Whether or not MCS is the cause, the syndrome seems to fit as well as any and certainly taps into contemporary and current anxieties around climate change and manmade toxins in the body. The idea that the world is poisoning you is terrifying because it is unavoidable, possibly untreatable.

A testament to Safe’s staying power is that it was written under the shadow of an entirely different threat. According to a 2014 interview with Haynes, Carol’s illness was born as an entirely deliberate metaphor for the AIDS crisis:

… everything was being interpreted around the specificity of AIDS and HIV at the time that Safe was made. That was on my mind quite specifically when I was conceiving of the film. At the same time, I wanted to bring up the behaviour that we all exhibit around illness, particularly in the way we try to attach meaning and personal responsibility to illness, and how much illness and identity are mixed up with each other…

The horror of an unknown, lethal disease that public leaders were uncomfortable and unwilling to address is clear throughout Safe, and it evokes the early terror of the epidemic through Haynes’ refusal to name Carol’s condition. While various environmental poisons and HIV are by no means interchangeable, the fact that both speak to a fear of the unspoken, hidden, and uncontrollable maintain Safe’s allegorical relevance.


Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classics

Carol’s reactions may not have an identifiable cause, but their truthfulness cannot be argued. One of the most striking scenes in Safe comes in the second half, when Carol takes herself to a New Age, quasi-spiritual retreat centre called Wrenwood. As the taxi pulls up, another resident sprints towards them, waving her arms and screaming that they have gone beyond the allowed barrier for motor vehicles. Such histrionics towards an everyday mode of transport dance between absurdity and genuine alarm. With all that viewers have seen of Carol’s illness, every second the taxi driver leaves the ignition running feels like ages – and yet these noises and exhaust fumes don’t warrant a second thought once the credits roll.

Dark Waters ends with post-credits titles explaining the eventual lawsuits, DuPont’s class action settlement, and the fact that unregulated chemicals can be found in plants and animals all over the world. It is a dire message, presented in cold facts, and the only ambiguity is whether the warnings will be heeded in time to prevent further destruction. Safe ends with Carol choosing voluntary isolation and seclusion from the world she knows, leaving her home and family – perhaps forever – to join Wrenwood. She’s not necessarily happy, but seems content in the conviction the sanctuary offers. The negligible resistance offered by her husband is open to interpretation: does he really believe this is the best place for his wife, or has he given up trying to help her as she refuses his hugs for fear of contamination? Carol’s secluded future is uncertain, but a fellow resident – clad head to toe in protective covers, breathing through a mask, and never ceasing their endless wandering of the premises – seems a haunting omen. The security and comfort they seek is forever out of reach, and safety becomes an ominous, all-consuming desire rather than a promise of rest.

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Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classics

It’s not reassuring that a 25-year-old film addresses current anxieties with such urgency – especially one written around an entirely different disaster. Safe would likely remain a classic regardless of current environmental anxieties; Moore’s performance is a career high, and the unclear stakes and unhurried pacing are ideal ingredients for a suspenseful psychodrama. Most importantly, the tragedy remains. As Carol loses her life to something unseen and inexplicable, Haynes taps into the primal fear of a fate beyond understanding. That said, the fact that this universal anxiety manifests as a paranoia of chemical poisoning and environmental stressors feels disturbingly prescient. One can hope that Safe loses some relevance in its next 25 years – but that feels unlikely.