To accept the environmental thriller “Dark Waters” as a Todd Haynes film is both to marvel at the varied ground this indie stalwart has covered in his multi-faceted career and to realize that even the greats occasionally like to give their iconoclastic reputations a rest and instead flex their muscles doing dramatic justice to an already gripping story.
Not that there aren’t plenty of Haynes-like touches all over the tale of Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defense attorney who pulled a thread of local water contamination off a complaint from one West Virginia farmer and, over years, exposed poisonous, decades-long malfeasance on the part of chemical behemoth DuPont. In Haynes’s psychologically and atmospherically astute compositions and careful nursing of the emotional impact on Bilott and wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway), it’s more a brittle ache of a quest than a righteous melodrama.
And as a portrait of solitary dedication against impossible odds, it’s of a piece with Haynes’s female-centered stories of upstream defiance “Safe” and “Far From Heaven” as much as it might call to mind a “Spotlight” or “All the President’s Men.” (Call it “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Lawyer,” if you will.)
But “Dark Waters,” with a screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (“Deepwater Horizon”) adapted from Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article about Bilott, is also unapologetically straightforward as an issue-driven narrative for our times. It moves with precision and clarity from office spaces to outdoor spaces to home spaces — over and over — until a full picture is laid out of unchecked power and its devastating effects, leaving us ready to look askance at any household product bearing the fingerprints of a chemical corporation.
In that respect, Haynes proves himself to be a sturdy, attentive steward of the impact-minded prestige picture, even if the generally somber, wintry tone (wholly befitting the tenor of its grim discoveries and wider implications) won’t necessarily make it an audience favorite along the lines of “Erin Brockovich.”
Following a moody prologue set in 1975, when fence-hopping skinny dippers are shooed out of a filmy-looking pond by workers on a boat with “containment” on its side, we jump to 1998 and the high-toned Cincinnati law offices where Bilott — his Big-Chem-defending firm’s Superfund expert — has just been made partner.
When small-town West Virginia farmers Wilbur Tennent (an earthy, fiery Bill Camp) and his brother Jim (Jim Azelvandre) bring him an accusation that their dead, black-toothed, tumor-ridden livestock is the nearby chemical plant’s fault due to its tainted runoff, Bilott is drawn to investigate, partly due to the site being near a farm where he spent summers as a child. He needs an OK, though, from his ambitious but supportive senior partner (Tim Robbins), because their firm typically defends big companies and not poor, griping plaintiffs.
The trip to Tennent’s devastated property in Parkersburg not only serves as a reminder of how far he’s come in life but also ignites suspicions that the town’s biggest employer, DuPont — the name of which is plastered everywhere (shown in a drive-by montage ironically set to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”) — hasn’t been upfront about its waste dispensing. It’s a concern that grows after the company’s reluctantly-handed-over materials point to a frequently cited substance Bilott can’t find in the EPA’s roster of regulated chemicals, finally spurring the lawyer to seek a case against the industrial giant, even as his own firm is wooing DuPont’s in-house counsel (Victor Garber, dutifully slick) to make them a client.
Not unlike “Safe,” which explored the pitfalls of an anesthetized life, Haynes directs Bilott’s years-long, mentally and physically debilitating battle to hold DuPont accountable as a fight forever in danger of succumbing to the almost hidden might of how-things-have-always-been. He’s aided not just by frequent collaborator Ed Lachman’s textured cinematography (like a shout-out to ’70s paranoia master Gordon Willis) but also Hannah Bleacher’s lived-in production design, and Brazilian composer Marcelo Zarvos’ icy piano score.
As for the performances, Ruffalo — a dedicated activist on environmental issues as well as the producer who brought the project to Haynes — leans heavily into his well-honed underdog energy with a rumply, purse-mouthed turn equal parts indignant and agitated. (After “Foxcatcher,” he’s certainly cornered the market on DuPont-triggered characters.) Hathaway, meanwhile, imbues the often-thankless wife role with complementary nerve and vexation; in this case, the character has admirably been given dimension to reflect Sarah’s status as a lawyer who gave up her job to be a stay-at-home mom.
Actors in the smaller roles bring their own magnetism to the tapestry, from the reliably authentic Mare Winningham as a suburban housewife turned lead class-action plaintiff Darlene Kiger, and Bill Pullman as sardonic, flashy Harry Deitzler, a Parkersburg attorney who joins Bilott’s legal team. In only a couple of scenes, William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”) shines as a junior associate who questions the firm’s ethics in battling the kind of company they typically shield from lawsuits.
And though the end credits indicate that some of the real-life figures appeared throughout as extras, one person in particular affected by DuPont’s malfeasance recognizably plays himself at the end to poignant, back-to-reality effect.
Though a solid example of saber-rattling, justice-centered docudrama, “Dark Waters” is also a more brooding effort, attuned more to the reality of never-ending battle than the epiphanies that come with bringing wrongdoing to light. That might make it a tough sell to a moviegoing populace who craves heroes with clean wins, but not for those who like whistleblower yarns that embrace the drama lying in the side effects.