Todd Haynes seems a strange choice to direct a routine David vs. Goliath legal drama. The crossover king of postmodern and queer cinema, Haynes is renowned for reference-heavy period pictures like Velvet Goldmine and Carol, not for contemporary – or at least relatively contemporary – investigative thrillers.
Dark Waters' opening scene at first suggests that Haynes is up to his old tricks: it is 1975, the summer of Jaws, and just like Jaws, the film begins with teenagers heading to the water to skinny dip after dark. But this is Parkersburg, West Virginia, not Amity Island, and the horror that lurks in this lake isn't a great white shark but chemicals being sprayed into the water by employees of the DuPont corporation.
The film then cuts to 1998, and Haynes's clever movie in-jokes disappear. We are introduced to Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a Cincinnati attorney whose slick firm represents nearly every major chemical company except DuPont. Yet Bilott has ties to Parkersburg, as we learn when one of his grandmother's neighbors (a brilliantly angry Bill Camp) shows up at Billot's office with the news that DuPont is poisoning the cows on his land.
Typically reluctant at first, once Billot begins to investigate, he slowly unravels a terrifying level of corporate malfeasance on the part of DuPont. And when I say "slowly", I don't mean that Dark Waters itself is slow, but that it expertly conveys just how long big lawsuits actually take. Without giving anything away, let's just say that Bilott doesn't wrap everything up in a couple of months.
You've seen this movie before, from A Civil Action to Erin Brockovich: whistleblower discovers corporate coverup, evil corporation tries to shut him/her down, guess who wins. In this respect, Dark Waters, based on real events, is essentially formulaic. (The screenplay, based on Nathaniel Rich's New York Times article, is written by the little-known Mario Correa and the unremarkable Hollywood dramatist Matthew Michael Carnahan.) But in a world where the rich and powerful rarely answer for their misdeeds, who isn't a sucker for this kind of story?
Ruffalo is charismatic and likable – is he ever not? – while a cast led by Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, and Bill Pullman is mostly relegated to stock supporting roles. Fans of Haynes the art film stylist may be disappointed by his straightforward approach to this material, but Dark Waters is still a well-crafted, realistic film that will make you think twice about all the chemicals in your house. Which, ironically, brings us back to Haynes's 1995 breakthrough feature Safe, albeit with a lot less ambiguity.