Dark Waters Review
Todd Haynes is one of the great chameleons of contemporary cinema, as comfortable emulating the style of a Douglas Sirk melodrama as he is telling a simple love story in the same vein as one of David Lean’s British romances. So the news that he had made a straightforward, ripped from the headlines legal drama in the same vein as Spotlight naturally caused confusion. His films have flirted with prestige respectability before, but never by sacrificing his own peculiar character - and this was a project that he signed on to make, by his own admission, entirely due to the importance of the subject matter at hand.
But while it may look exactly like a director for hire gig on the surface, Dark Waters is based on a true story that echoes the same themes that have haunted Haynes’ films throughout his career. If anything, it may be as much an unexpected companion piece to his 1995 film Safe (where Julianne Moore plays a housewife sent to a new age retreat after becoming inexplicably allergic to her environment) as it is connected to Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, both stylistically and in the righteous fury with which it greets its subject matter.
The film opens in the early nineties. Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate defence lawyer for the chemical industry in Cincinnati, but one day gets unexpectedly visited at his office by West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). He demands Robert look into the unexplained deaths of people and animals in his town of Parkersburg, that he claims is the doing of DuPont, the gigantic organisation who Bilott often helps in legal cases.
Out of kindness, Robert goes back to visit the town (it’s where his mother lives, after all) and starts pouring through the videotapes Wilbur left, which show chemicals polluting the water, and causing the deaths of dozens of his cows. While maintaining a friendship with Dupont, Robert decides to sue them to get to the bottom of this case’s specifics - and in the process, enters into a legal battle that would not be resolved for another two decades.
Although this is thematically in tune with his earlier works, Haynes’ directorial style is considerably more muted here, never overwhelming the power of the true story with any unnecessary stylistic tics. The moments that do linger on the mind, such as an opening prologue recalling that of Jaws as teens dive into polluted waters, or a brief shot of a girl cycling only to open her mouth and reveal jet black teeth, are successful at creating a sustained unease - without ever needing to exaggerate details for dramatic effect. Considering Haynes’ previous films based on true stories either featured several actors playing the same character (I’m Not There), or had to change the names of the characters depicted for legal reasons (Velvet Goldmine), his willingness to stick to the quiet, truthful horror might render this his most mature work to date.
The film’s downfall is that the strict focus on the case, often passing several years in minutes when no consequential event occurs, means that the character drama isn’t as impactful as it otherwise would be. Although both give commendable performances, the marriage between Robert and Sarah Bilott (Anne Hathaway) seems like an afterthought, the character’s complaint that the case is taking over their lives only ringing true because, well, we’re barely shown any of their personal lives to begin with. And Bill Camp, one of the most reliable American character actors working today, easily steals the show - but he too disappears in the later stages, his character becoming a peripheral figure within a case that wouldn’t be getting attention if not for him.
Todd Haynes wanted this case to get more mainstream attention, and he’s succeeded. But it is a shame that the way he and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan approach the material leaves little room to explore the specifics of how this case affected the daily lives of its characters, skipping years at a time if nothing relevant to the case took place. The end result feels caught between two stools; told with more passionate anger than the director for hire gig many feared this would be, but with a lack of interest in its characters outside of their relationship to the legal drama unfolding around them.
Dark Waters is out in UK cinemas on February 28
Dark Waters (2019)
Dir: Todd Haynes | Cast: Anne Hathaway, Bill Pullman, Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins | Writers: Mario Correa (screenplay), Matthew Michael Carnahan (earlier screenplay), Nathaniel Rich (magazine article)