There’s an unexpected combination of spiritual material to auteur in Dark Waters, the true life retelling of Ohio lawyer Robert Bilott and his long-lived case against the DuPont corporation. Both a courtroom drama and corporate justice character study in the vein of a much more somber Erin Brockovich, Todd Haynes’ film details the discovery of DuPont’s knowing poisoning of local water supplies and the uphill climb for retribution. Mark Ruffalo returns to the everyman shoes that suit him best as Bilott, brought onto the case from a vague family connection and uncovering implications beyond the local community.
Invoking Soderbergh’s modern classic in describing Dark Waters is an easy but apt callout for where this film surprisingly finds itself in Haynes’ filmography. Like his peer, the directorial match to subject or genre isn’t a pairing that one might predict. Yet likewise Haynes also further elevates the material, sinking the film into a deeper eye on the cosmology of justice seekers like Bilott and the sacrifice of the soul that must be made to endure the suffering of those they fight for.
Haynes mostly tricks us by initiating the film in the traditional genre mold, with he and his standby cinematographer Edward Lachman evoking the likes of legal drama titans Sydney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula. As the story develops and the scope of DuPont’s poisoning spreads beyond the narrow circumstance he had signed on for, the trap door falls beneath us just as it does with the protagonist. The film morphs into a character study on dissociation of the spirit from the body, not just of the state of a community growing sicker and stripped of power by a corporation, but especially of Bilott struggling to shoulder it against the slow-moving barge of due process. Haynes and Lachman capture this in gnarled, reflective imagery, a mass of overhead lighting and murky indigos that underline the clincalness of business proceedings done unfeelingly on human biology. Haynes already has [safe], but now he might have a version of its ideas digestible for the masses.
It also feels like the first time Haynes has pulled out more manipulative tools from his arsenal, perhaps a tradeoff to placing a purely original filmmaker in such tidy mainstream material. With Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s rigid screenplay, the film can’t escape some friction from the director trying to imbue his own feeling, even if it improves it. While Dark Waters clearly separates itself as the safest Haynes has ever played, the film is populated with his keenly-observed human grace that ties itself to what has always made his point of view so distinct. Across genres and stylistic leaps of daring, Haynes films all remain about experiencing isolation while existing in a particular ecosystem – this one is just the broadest, most accessible canvas.
As ever, Haynes proves again to be a gifted shepherd for his actors. Ruffalo refuses mannered behavior in projecting Bilott’s mounting anxieties, nor does his more righteous passages dip into the kind of scenery chewing that would provide barrier to Haynes’ ceaseless humanism. Anne Hathaway is his wife Sarah, lending a necessary toughness, particular in a late-film monologue in Robert’s defense that also has meta-awareness of the gender trope at play. But it’s Bill Camp as Wilbur Tennant, the man who brings the case to Bilott, that brings shockingly authentic West Virginian gruff to the environment – his work is a real transformation, a knot of fatalistic rage clawing its way out of a grave he’s being pulled into by corporate negligence. In Camp’s performance is the film’s barely-contained fury.
Dark Waters may aim for advocacy over originality, but it is makes for a hearty piece of conventional American filmmaking within its ilk.