decades-long (and still going) fight against the chemical company DuPont, whom he discovered, in the late 1990s, via a farmer with a 12th-grade education, had been knowingly poisoning the public since its inception. Dark Waters is technically not an investigative-journalism movie à la All the President’s Men (1976) or Spotlight (2015) given Bilott’s vocation. But they serve as precedents anyway, since so much of the movie involves Bilott, like Woodward and Bernstein or Boston Globe staffers, ravenously pawing through dusty boxes of files, pursuing sources, making horrific discoveries, often inadvertently prioritizing work over loved ones, and realizing that, in order to topple an entity so big, it’s going to take years — a horrid epiphany to be had in any case. Dark Waters, ever-realistic, concludes wondering if DuPont will ever really pay the price for their wrongs, with money being such a persuasive speaker in America.
The movie is gripping, and has been competently helmed by Haynes, who provides the labyrinthine but fortunately followable screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan a convincing gray naturalism. But the story-over-character ratio is overwhelmingly on the story side, so the characters have an almost-unavoidable stock feel to them. Anne Hathaway, who plays Bilott’s long-suffering former attorney wife with as much vigor as the script affords her, can especially only really operate on the hackneyed terms. I thought often of one of the comic skits posted on Twitter by the actress Natalie Walker, who could put Hathaway’s character in her repertoire of cult-classic online impersonations. Haynes’ usually detectable sense of self (always around even though his movies are chameleonic) unfortunately isn’t really here, either. But the film rivets us anyway. And as long as a movie about valiant attempts to take down a particularly avaricious corporation is done predominantly well, that’s good enough for me.
Queen & Slim: C+
Dark Waters: B+
he new movie from Todd Haynes, Dark Waters, is another movie that moves, a lot of the time, on rather platitudinous terms. Based on a true story, it revolves around lawyer Robert Bilott’s (played by Mark Ruffalo)
disesteemed memoirist James Frey. Queen & Slim takes a familiar narrative — police brutality inflicted against a black person during an arbitrary traffic stop — but subverts it. What if the people being victimized were to take control of the situation? The movie has an intriguing premise and alludes to familiar and righteously anger-inducing cultural dysfunctions. But it isn’t a lot more than ideas attached to first-rate visual and sonic creations.
The two people taking back the situation in Queen & Slim are unnamed until the end of the movie. They’re never called Queen and Slim in the film — not even during cutaways to news broadcasts or flashes to other media. We meet them, as the film opens, at a black-owned diner. “Queen” is a criminal defense attorney, and is played by Jodie Turner-Smith. “Slim,” whose occupation or title I didn’t catch, is portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya. They’re on a date — their first. It doesn’t go that great. Queen is spiky and tense. Most things Slim does — chew with his mouth open, pray quietly to himself before eating — annoy her. We learn that, earlier that day, a client of Queen’s was sentenced to death, which is why she's so on edge. She hit Slim up on Tinder (he messaged her a few months earlier and didn't hear back) mostly because she didn’t want to be alone. Why not turn to someone to whom she's close? She says she doesn’t have any friends; she isn’t close with her family. Queen chose Slim because she liked his picture. Eventually their rapport gets a little warmer. But we can tell there probably won’t be a second date unless Slim is adamant enough about it.
As Slim is driving Queen home, they’re pulled over by a white police officer (Sturgill Simpson), apparently because Slim didn’t use a turn signal a block or so back and because he lightly swerved. The officer gets unnecessarily aggressive, asking Slim to get out of the car without a reason given. The situation escalates. Queen gets shot in the leg. As the cop and Slim wrestle on the ground, Slim grabs ahold of the gun and shoots him to death in self-defense. Slim isn’t so hot on the idea — he’s close with his family, and doesn’t want to be considered a criminal — but when Queen suggests she and this relative stranger go on the run because they don’t have many (perhaps any) other options if they want to live freely, that’s what they do.
So begins an odyssey. The journey starts in Ohio, spends time down south, and winds up on an airstrip decorated with a private plane in Florida, headed toward Cuba. The pit stops allow for Matsoukas to make the most of her visual acuity. A “second date” is at a club submerged in a carnal red. A stay at the New Orleans home of Queen’s estranged uncle, played by Bokeem Woodbine, comes with lots of eye-catching avant-garde sartorial choices, since the man is always accompanied by a fleet of video vixen-looking sex workers. Landscapes are ogled as Queen and Slim pass through them in their necessarily ever-changing roundup of cars, which include a vintage pickup and a teal Pontiac Catalina. The film works best when the splendor of Matsoukas’ visuals, brought more to life by Tat Radcliffe’s sweating photography, merges with the few spots of nonchalance in Waithe’s screenplay, like moments during which Queen and Slim take turns hanging out the car window on a stretch of empty highway, enjoying the breeze, or when they see some horses on an expanse of seemingly unwatched land and impulsively mount one.
But mostly everywhere else the strength of Matsoukas' direction lays stress on the feebleness of Waithe’s screenplay, which doesn’t cut through the movie’s glossy, quasi-surreal sheen. Waithe by necessity conjures germane social issues in her writing — police brutality, black radicalism, prison labor. But she only really alludes to them, never fully engaging with the ideas or themes she turns her attention to. There’s additionally a wrong-feeling, overriding not-all-cops-are-bad ethos. There are a handful of scenes prominently featuring categorized-as-good officers that make it seem as though Waithe is trying to distract us from very-real institutional problems and instead say the ills permeating law enforcement can simply be blamed on a select few.
The strangest of the choices made in Queen & Slim is a climactic sex scene that recurringly cuts away to a protest. It’s a fairly incomprehensible move, culminating in a burst of violence that makes murky exactly what Waithe and Matsoukas want to say with the movie. Dialogue is sparse, too. We learn little about these characters — their backgrounds, how they're grappling with this hellish situation — and as an effect they're more art objects dressed in velour and jungle print inside a hyper-stylized vision than people. Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are good in the movie. But they can’t reach greatness because of the vacancies of the script. The movie is lushly and often gorgeously fleshed out, but Waithe is so averse to really delving into the anger and traumas presented that, by its end, Queen & Slim feels more stilted and painterly than alive, cinematic. It could have been more than it is.
Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in 2019's Queen & Slim.
known for her stylistically provocative music-video work (her magnum opus is Beyoncé’s epochal “Formation,” from 2016) and her contributions to the TV shows Master of None (2017) and Insecure (2016). And its soundtrack, mixing original and commissioned tracks, has been put together by the multi-hyphenate musician Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange), who as ever with the compilation shows that in addition to being a stellar artist in his own right, he’s as much of a masterful tastemaker. Ultimately, though, Queen & Slim cannot only rely on its artistic prowess. But the film, which is flimsily written and in many places puzzlingly conceived, perhaps unwittingly does anyway.
The screenplay has been written by Lena Waithe (who had previously worked with Matsoukas on Master of None), which in turn is based on a story devised by the
ueen & Slim (2019) has great style. This was to be expected. It’s the feature-length filmmaking debut from Melina Matsoukas, a director best
Queen & Slim & Dark Waters, Reviewed December 10, 2019
On a stylish lovers-on-the-run story and a paranoid thriller