Based on a 2016 New York Times magazine article, Dark Waters is a taut and suspenseful legal drama directed by Todd Haynes. The film centres around Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), who finds himself in a near-twenty-year legal battle with US chemical conglomerate DuPont after taking on what he thinks will be the small case of Wilbur Tennant, a local farmer (an excellent Bill Camp) whose cows died under mysterious circumstances in Bilott’s hometown in West Virginia.
Bilott then discovers Tennant’s farm, livestock and livelihood are being poisoned by a nearby DuPont plant, which is pumping toxic waste into the water, killing his cows and making his family dangerously ill. Bilott takes on the task of bringing legal proceedings against the chemical giant – who are also a powerful and lucrative client of his own firm. This already tricky situation is only made more difficult by DuPont happening to be the biggest employer in the local town, having great influence on the community.
On the surface, the film appears to be far removed from what you would expect in a Todd Haynes movie, replacing his signature melodrama with bare-boned, workmanlike storytelling. On further inspection, however, the film is a perfect companion piece to Haynes’ 1995 cult classic Safe, evoking the same sense of dread and paranoia. While somewhat similar to films such as Erin Brockovich and Silkwood, the film is much more indebted to Alan J. Pakula‘s conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s.
In stark contrast to the brightly saturated colours of Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Carol, long-time cinematographer Edward Lachman drains the film of colour with icy blues and greys. Meanwhile, Marcelo Zarvos’ unnerving score further infuses haunting melancholy into every frame.
The story is skilfully told, with sharp writing and directing and a strong cast that rarely overplays the drama, apart from maybe Anne Hathaway as Bilott’s long-suffering wife Sarah. While the script fails to fully flesh out her character, she unfortunately employs a more-is-more approach to tedious effect. Ruffalo, meanwhile, gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the sullen and deceptively unassuming Bilott. On the other hand, as the gruff Tennant, Camp gives a feverishly impassioned performance that commands as much attention as his overly bushy eyebrows do.
While the pace of the film might be laborious for some, Dark Waters is a relevant and gripping indictment of corporate greed in modern America, led by a brilliantly convincing Ruffalo whose performance alone is worth the price of a ticket. Overall, this is a powerful piece of work and it’s not surprising that there are reports of it making DuPont stockholders nervous. If you have Teflon in your kitchen, it may well make you nervous too.