Todd Haynes is such a distinctive authorial voice in American cinema, a genius from left field, notably addressing identity and sexuality, and with an interest in fantasy, pastiche and the vicissitudes of period detail. Dark Waters is in so many ways out of character for him: a straight-ahead, true-life legal thriller, fluently adapted by screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan from a New York Times magazine article by Nathaniel Rich.
It plays out in the absorbing classic style, featuring the principled lawyer (played here by Mark Ruffalo) taking on the corporate bad guys on behalf of ordinary folks. There are no ironically self-aware stylistic touches, although – given that it is a film about bad things being hidden in the waters – the first scene with young people rashly swimming in a poisoned creek could allude to the opening of Jaws.
Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) is the besuited corporate lawyer from Ohio who has built a blandly prosperous career in the 1990s representing big, powerful companies. But then an angry West Virginia farmer called Wilbur Tennant (ferociously played by Bill Camp) gets in touch, because he is a friend and neighbour of Bilott’s grandma. (In real life, Tennant just called Bilott on the phone; the movie has him show up embarrassingly in the office in his dusty farmer’s gear.) All of Wilbur’s cows are being horribly poisoned because of chemical firm DuPont’s nearby plant. Something truly evil is going on.
This is a moment of destiny. Because an unhappy farmer knew his grandmother, and showed him the truth about how corporations were treating innocent people, Bilott switched sides, to the initial horror of his colleagues and discomfiture of his family and wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway). The film shows that he was turned, or flipped, like a spy – using his knowledge of the big chemical firms against them.
Legal dramas such as Erin Brockovich and Richard Jewell generally present a rather quaintly imagined ordinary person, with all his or her blue-collar flaws, taking on the fat-cat establishment with the help of an overworked maverick lawyer. This isn’t quite how Dark Waters plays out: Camp’s farmer is the ordinary person, right enough, but the limelight settles on Ruffalo’s lawyer, who is the real everyman – slumped, with bad posture, a permanent grimace on his lower lip and a stress-induced tremor in his hand.
In some ways, the movie is closer to something like Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) about taking on big tobacco. It’s a procedural, and all the fascination is in the detail: the mounds of documents, the boardroom discussions, the cunning courtroom strategies and the heroic jiu-jitsu of using a corporation’s massive institutional weight against it. Dark Waters is a movie that works marvellously well within its own generic terms, and perhaps after the fey disappointment of Todd Haynes’s previous, rather insufferable fantasy Wonderstruck, this tough, clear movie was what Haynes needed to clear his creative palate.
• Dark Waters is released in the UK on 28 February and in Australia on 5 March.
Source: The Guardian