If it weren’t for the work he’d done in the Japanese fishing village of Minamata, W. Eugene Smith’s legacy would likely be that of a war photographer, or else as one of the leading contributors to Life magazine, whose immersive approach to his subjects helped pioneer the concept of the photo essay. But Smith did go to Minamata, and the images he sent home in late 1971 — especially a wrenching, pietà-like portrait of a mother bathing her mercury-poisoned daughter — defined not only his career but the human impact of industrial pollution as the public knows it today.
In documenting what came to be known as Minamata disease, Smith showed the world what toxic chemicals were doing to a community, paving the way for a different kind of war, one of personal political activism carried forward by Andrew Levitas’ impressive if somewhat less-than-nuanced look at this high-impact last-act triumph in Smith’s career. The undeniably compelling project (just Levitas’ second as director, after 2014’s low-budget but starry “Lullaby”) resurrects a downward-sliding Johnny Depp — looking all but unrecognizable behind sun damage, liver spots and a sparse, spackled-on beard — in what feels like an extension of the gonzo Hunter S. Thompson performance he delivered in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Gene Smith is not the same character by any means, but the comparison to Thompson seems unavoidable once audiences see Depp knocking back whiskey and amphetamines to chase away the ghosts. Some photographers can comfortably page through their oeuvre as if the past were a tastefully curated coffee-table book. But in Smith’s case, it plays more like some kind of horror movie, bombarding him with subliminal flashes of his most haunting black-and-white images — post-traumatic traces of all that he’s witnessed over the years.
Gene’s in bad shape when “Minamata” opens: Holed up in his New York apartment, he’s drunk, in debt, estranged from his kids, and obliged to sell his equipment and accept an insincere endorsement deal for Fuji Film, even though he’s never shot a color photo in his life. But that last opportunity introduces Gene to Aileen (Minami), the Japanese woman who will later become his wife. For now, she’s hoping that this famous photographer might be able to help her raise awareness about mercury poisoning in the small town of Minamata, and she catches him at the right time. Gene pitches the assignment to Life editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy, suitably self-righteous) and receives permission to fly to Japan and explore the situation.
The two early scenes that take place in Life’s corporate-looking New York offices point to another possible influence — specifically, the agitated board-room opening of Robert Downey’s late-’60s Madison Avenue satire “Putney Swope,” which prowls through spaces of money and power as if looking for blood. Levitas is an unusual artist, who rose up through painting and metalwork, paid his dues as an actor, and now finds himself branching out into filmmaking. His second foray into directing offered the chance to collaborate with DP Benoît Delhomme, fresh off Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” and while he’s not in Schnabel’s league — not yet, at least — the choice gave him an opportunity to develop his own visual language.
With “Minamata,” Levitas and Delhomme adopt a curious and somewhat risky shooting style, likely inspired by Smith himself: Rather than committing to storyboard-dictated angles, they plunge into the scene, counting on Delhomme’s handheld camera to capture its essence, then hoping to unlock the truth of the moment in editing. The approach feels disorienting and slightly drugged-out at first (as in an early darkroom scene, set to Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World”) but settles into a more natural rhythm once Gene and Aileen reach Japan.
As soon as they arrive, they are confronted by evidence of chemical poisoning: It’s evident in the gnarled hands and deformed faces of the locals, including an accordion-playing young man to whom Gene loans a camera. Depp plays it surly throughout, dominating those around him, but Minami has a strong screen presence as well (despite struggling somewhat with the dialogue in her first English-language role). As Aileen, she needs only to look at Gene, and he will yield to her demands. The two characters read as equals here, despite their polar-opposite personalities, and that unusual chemistry fuels the dangerous reporting ahead of them.
A sledgehammer treatment of many of the same issues so elegantly addressed in Todd Haynes’ recent “Dark Waters” (a domestic industrial-negligence saga all but overlooked in theaters last fall), “Minamata” features several jazzed-up white-knuckle sequences in which Gene, Aileen and other activists — including a charismatic organizer played by the great Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada — trespass in hospital wards and research labs where the Chisso Corp. patients are being treated for methylmercury contamination.
Chisso makes for a powerful adversary that has both the police and local goons in its pocket, a massive chemical company that dumps its toxic byproducts directly into the water supply. Levitas sanitizes the waste water Gene observes, presumably to make the thick sludge he actually documented in 1971 seem more credible. But when it comes to violent confrontations — including an attack that leaves Gene badly bruised and bandaged for the taking of his impactful “Tomoko in Her Bath” photograph — Levitas shows no such restraint, leaning on master composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (in top form) to amplify the fundamental integrity of Smith’s anti-corporate exposé.
Shooting halfway around the world (mostly in Serbia), Levitas and his team do an impressive job of doubling the sort of places where Gene and Aileen conducted their radical investigation — but one location in particular serves to define the movie. In Belgrade, the production found a factory whose looming presence immediately conveys what the poor fishing community was up against.
This monstrous building is an invaluable asset — practically a character unto itself — which Gene is invited to tour by Chisso’s openly corrupt chief executive (Jun Kunimura). On an upper catwalk, the man offers Gene $50,000 to hand over all his negatives and forget the cause, a scene that doesn’t seem especially plausible but effectively dramatizes the leverage Chisso had to cover its tracks. Minamata was hardly an isolated case, as an end-credits montage reminds. Industry itself isn’t evil, but the notion that audiences shiver before such a factory today — despite decades of corporate propaganda extolling their virtues — speaks to an enormous change in public sentiment over the past half-century, brought about in part by crusaders like Gene and Aileen Smith.