Todd Haynes’ latest film stars Mark Ruffalo as corporate defense attorney Robert Billot who is approached by his grandmother’s farmer neighbour (Bill Camp), wanting him to investigate chemical dumping by the behemoth DuPont, which has led to the death of 190 of his cows and is an incredibly dangerous health risk to all the people of the town. Although initially sceptical, Robert begins to see for himself just how serious the effects of DuPont’s actions have been and as he delves further into the case, he gradually uncovers many disturbing, long held secrets, a veritable mass cover up, and as he strives to safeguard the health and wellbeing of the affected town’s inhabitants, yearning for justice and to prove to everyone what DuPont has done, he also faces massive pushback and roadblocks from the seemingly untouchable chemical company and as he becomes obsessed with the case at hand, his health soon suffers and also risks alienating himself from the rest of his family, including his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway).
Despite having a talented director at the helm, Carol being one of the best films of the previous decade, I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting an awful lot from Dark Waters, somehow getting it into my head that at best, it would turn out to be above average but nothing that would exactly feature in my top ten at the end of the year. Well, it turns out that you really don’t know unless you see it for yourself because Dark Waters wound up being better than I expected and, although not the best film that I’ve ever seen by any stretch of the imagination, the story managed to engage and intrigue me and the film ultimately succeeds in stirring up anger and shock at what chemical goliaths like DuPont are doing to the planet and to the people who live on it.
Seeing as how we’re at a point in time where conditions on Earth are getting worse, with the environment at serious risk and climate change being the cause of much worry and concern, Dark Waters is arguably a timely and relevant film because we can recognise all too well how the people in power, the bigshots who have all the money and resources, often turn a blind eye to the damage that they’re doing, refusing to own up to their deeds and doing everything they can to safeguard their image, thinking only of lining their pockets while too many civilians suffer because of their actions. The film should be commended for bringing this important case to light (I hadn’t heard of it beforehand) and it really wants you to get angry and shocked at what is happening in the world, tactfully making reference to those who would deny that anything is wrong with the environment, and in this sense, Haynes and co. really succeed because it presents the facts and the topical issues to us intelligently and makes a genuine and passionate argument about how the big companies are posing an imminent danger to many people, never being overly manipulative or obvious in its approach and never once feeling like “Oscar bait” or “made for TV” movie, which it could easily have done in lesser hands.
The screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan works well because it manages to give us all of the necessary facts and information and capably follows Billot’s investigation from the ground up, gradually uncovering the “hidden information” in a perfectly accessible way, never letting things get too complicated but at the same time, not spoonfeeding the information to the audience either; the screenwriters tackle the important issues admirably and at the same time, they find time for character development by examining the toll that the case took on Billot and shows how relations with his family grew increasingly strained. In addition, Haynes’ direction is effective because he achieves an ideal tone and keeps us invested with the central case throughout, although he does let the pace get a little too laborious during the second half as, though the events themselves remain intriguing, the film ends up covering a lot of familiar ground towards the end and ultimately, Dark Waters is a little too long. Edward Lachman’s cinematography is also praiseworthy because, appropriately for a film concerned with chemical dumping, the colour scheme is quite muddy and “earthy”, though not in an entirely unappealing way, and the gritty look and feel of the film gives the film a distinct personality and it works especially well in those scenes set during the 1990s.
The film’s cast also go quite a long way in making Dark Waters a commendable filmmaking endeavour and in the leading role, Mark Ruffalo is very well cast; perhaps in the same vein as his character in Spotlight, Ruffalo’s Billot, though clearly sceptical and a little apathetic at first, grows determined to get to the bottom of things no matter what the cost, clearly showing his shock, frustration and disbelief when he uncovers some horrible truths, and just like he was in Spotlight, Ruffalo shows this rugged determination (as well as plenty of despair and fear when DuPont pushes back and his health declines) authentically and it’s clear to see that Ruffalo believes in the character and in the material, giving us a character who we just know is willing to work hard to achieve proper justice. In supporting roles, Anne Hathaway is strong enough as Sarah Billot, although the screenwriters don’t really know how to properly elevate her past the simple “wife” role, Tim Robbins (gosh, it’s good to see him in things again!) plays Robert’s supportive boss with charisma, dignity and strength, Bill Camp makes a big impact as the crotchety but suffering Wilbur Tennant, Bill Pullman, though he’s not in it for long, provides some welcome entertainment as the outspoken lawyer who helps Robert in his case, and Victor Garber is the ideal face of corporate greed and ruthlessness, playing the obstructive DuPont head honcho very well.