‘Dark Waters’ review: gripping legal thriller doubles as a cautionary tale against capitalism

Mark Ruffalo's latest drama isn't just a 'Spotlight'-style cash-in

It would be easy to assume that Todd Haynes’ latest film, Dark Waters, is exactly what its trailers would suggest: a familiar hero-lawyer flick in the mould of 2015 crime drama Spotlight – in which star Mark Ruffalo tackles a grotesque cover-up by the Catholic Church. But, despite certain similarities, Dark Waters defies categorisation through the sheer quality of its craft.

Adapted from a New York Times article published in 2016, the story follows corporate lawyer Robert Bilott’s long-fought environmental case against another American institution – the DuPont chemical conglomerate. DuPont were found to be illegally dumping chemicals in West Virginia, contaminating the water supply, leading to cancer cases in the local community and widespread deaths of cattle.

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Haynes once again partners with cinematographer Edward Lachman, who leaves behind the lush domestic interiors and warm autumn hues of Far From Heaven and the sensual intimacy of Carol, for a much colder, foreboding style. The visuals here oscillate between corporate offices and poisoned environments. In Lachman’s handling of light you can feel the weight of Bilott’s investigation; the colour palette dominated by deep, dark hues and overcast horizons, as well as a strangely haunting shot of chain restaurant Benihana. There are some odd choices too, including a ‘cow’s eye view’ from a bovine driven mad by poisoned water, but for the most part, Lachman gets it right.

Cast-wise, there are some stellar efforts on display – particularly Ruffalo as the exhausted Bilott, his shoulders heavy with responsibility. This is a methodical procedural unfolding across decades, where years seem to vanish in the blink of an eye – and this passage of time is felt almost entirely through Ruffalo’s steadily increasing weariness. Elsewhere, Bill Camp’s righteous fury as Wilbur Tennant, a farmer who brings the evidence of DuPont’s wrongdoing to Billott’s attention, is worthy of a mention.

Screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan are perfectly measured in their approach, depicting the fatigue that comes with fighting such a large and powerful company for so long, rather than explaining that point in one neat, exposition-heavy monologue.

A tale of the horrors caused by capitalism and how it empowers people into other avenues of corruption, at one point the film works in visual details alluding to the state of Virginia’s racist past. As with many films of this nature (including last year’s The Report), it’s focused on accountability and how the government is ultimately constructed to protect those who necessitate the most scrutiny.

Details

  • Director: Todd Haynes
  • Starring: Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham
  • Release date: February 28
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