Todd Haynes’ ‘Dark Waters’ follows a man’s quest to punish the DuPont Corporation for knowingly dumping toxic waste within a region of Virginia, USA. It’s a film narrative that has been done before, but this does not mean it does not bring anything new to the table. Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, a corporate defence lawyer for corporations. After receiving a request for help from farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), he discovers that the Du Pont corporation had been knowingly dumping toxic waste into a Virginian region for decades. Despite having worked for the corporation in the past, Bilott decides to do the right thing and tries to bring the huge chemical conglomerate to justice by switching sides. With Bilott acting as an isolated attacker on the huge DuPont Chemical Empire, 'Dark Waters' follows the style of films such as Wall Street and Chinatown. Haynes as director is however an odd pairing, having revolutionised the New Queer Movement with films such as ‘Far From Heaven’ and ‘Carol’, but he doesn’t seem out of his depth here, his understated take on the thriller genre a breath of fresh air, spearheaded by an excellent performance from Ruffalo.
Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bilott is a bright spark and brings into question why he does not receive more leading man opportunities. He gives a layered and complex performance, adding a further dimension to the otherwise modest direction. Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway plays his wife Sarah, her talents underused and resulting in a rather lukewarm performance: even though she acts as Bilott’s link to reality during his growing paranoia, she remains secondary to the plot. Haynes’ goal to portray Bilott as isolated and small up against the DuPont ‘Suits’ was clearly a priority, but one wonders in the end what Sarah’s role is in the fight, with next to nothing to properly identify with her as a character.
The direction and cinematography of 'Dark Waters' remains very understated. Cinematographer Edward Lachman has worked alongside Haynes on several of his films and utilises several cinematic effects to convey Bilott’s isolation. A number of scenes start off in darkness, or out of focus on an object, with the image only becoming clear when Bilott is more comfortable within the situation. The cinematic style is not what makes 'Dark Waters' a success however. The writing succeeds in capturing our interest and making it rewarding whenever there is a new finding or development within Bilott’s case, with the grinding and monotonous effort of sorting through hundreds of boxes to search for evidence ensuring this.
As a result, despite having a story and structure that is in a similar vein to other genre classics, 'Dark Waters' is a suspenseful and rewarding watch for cinephiles, especially those with an interest in issue-oriented films.
Edited by Juliette Howard, Deputy Film Editor