Todd Haynes steps outside of his wheelhouse with a well-intentioned, but messy piece of narrative journalism.
Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), the protagonist of Todd Haynes’ latest film Dark Waters, isn’t the kind of guy who usually fights for the little guy. On the contrary, as a lawyer who typically represents chemical companies, he’s the fella who’ll bulldoze over the little guy to help salvage the reputation of a wealthy corporation. But in a twist of fate, one of his most prominent clients, DuPont (the company behind Teflon), becomes somebody he’s filing a lawsuit against on behalf of farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Tennant’s land and cattle have been poisoned by a nearby landfill put together by DuPont and that’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how DuPont has been throwing away the safety of human beings in the name of profits.
It’s been a while since we had a theatrical release like Dark Waters; this sort of political thriller (quite common as late as a decade ago with films like Breach and Michael Clayton), vanished once Hollywood pivoted away from mid-budget titles. Hopefully, Dark Waters is an indication such titles are making a comeback — and hopefully, future titles in this subgenre are a bit more consistent in quality. Though far from a bad movie, Haynes’ work works mostly as a message movie that fails to make truly engaging human beings out of its lead characters.
That issue falls largely on screenwriters Mario Correra and Matthew Michael Carnahan, who make a mistake common in many biopics: they confuse comprehensiveness with quality. Covering nearly twenty years in the lives of Bilott and company, and fitting in all of the real-life events along the way, leaves the characters vaguely defined as the story hurriedly moves from one year to the next. Critical events pass right by without any room to breathe and leave characters like Bilott’s partner Sarah (Anne Hathaway) severely underdeveloped, despite being portrayed by talented performers. Dark Waters takes place over an extensive span of time, but its exploration of its central characters is far more shallow.
On the other hand, at least the film’s prolonged coverage of time shows how the fight against mega-powerful corporations doesn’t happen in a day. This is actually one of Dark Waters‘ better attributes: this isn’t a film about grandiose victories, but rather people struggling to even speak against power, let alone take it down a peg. It’s a realistic portrayal of the long, hard fight against corrupt institutions, and Ruffalo’s performance is at its best when it’s informed by this aspect of the film. Ruffalo infuses Bilott with an ever-growing weariness, which drags him down as the years go by without significant progress.
The rest of the performances aren’t nearly as memorable, unfortunately. Hathaway has little to do in the role of Sarah while supporting actors Tim Robbins and Bill Pullman too often opt for shouting and affectation. Even the ever-reliable Camp ends up portraying Tennant as an over-the-top Southern caricature rather than as a human being. While Dark Waters script opts for subtly showing how draining fighting for the right cause can be, its performances have a bad habit of going for the loud and brash.
Dark Waters takes place over an extensive span of time, but its exploration of its central characters is far more shallow.
More consistently successful is Haynes’ direction — he’s an odd choice to helm this project given how divorced it is from staples of his filmography like the LGBTQIA+ community, rock n’ roll or 20th-century American malaise. Still, Haynes still delivers solid work behind the camera, and it’s especially interesting how thoughtfully he uses color grading. Some movies just use color grading to coat pointless light blue filter over shots, but Haynes picks specific colors to signify the varying moods of the environments Bilott walks into. His law office, for instance, is coated in a yellow tint, Terp’s farm is laced in a drained-out blue hue, his home is devoid of any color grading to reflect that this is a place of sanctuary isolated from the outside world.
Such a well-realized visual feature shows that Haynes’ filmmaking chops are still in fine form, even in a journeyman project like Dark Waters. But the movie itself could have used a more distinctly human touch.
Dark Waters sits you down for a lecture on corporate malfeasance November 22nd in limited release and goes wide December 6th.