Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Dark Waters

The latest from director Todd Haynes is a factually-based epic that proves his most straightforward, even conventional drama, and yet he makes up for it with a great deal of righteous anger.

Less raunchy than his Velvet Goldmine, less daring than his Bob Dylan phantasmagoria I’m Not There and, with its naturalistic dark colours, significantly less visually sumptuous than his 1950s-set outings (Far From Heaven and Carol), it features a finely restrained lead performance from sometime-Avenger Mark Ruffalo, who also helped produce.

Intriguingly, this is the second film featuring Ruffalo that deals with the staggeringly rich and rotten DuPont family (after Foxcatcher), but that’s not surprising given how they permeated so many facets of modern American life.

In 1998 Cincinnati corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark) is approached by angry farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) during a meeting, as Robert’s boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) looks on disapprovingly. It seems that Wilbur knew Mark’s grandma back home in West Virginia, and through this connection Wilbur hopes that Robert will help him sue the DuPont corporation for the deaths of his livestock.

Robert is actually a defense lawyer but visits Wilbur’s farm out of respect, and there finds sick cattle and, as his investigations then continue, poisoned soil, polluted water and all manner of ill locals, and he at length convinces Tom to allow him to work at holding DuPont and their handsomely-paid-off cronies accountable. Many years pass and, as his family grows, Rob’s relationship with his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) frequently becomes strained and he, of course, becomes unhealthily obsessed, imagining dark figures watching him from the shadows in a pseudo-horror-movie moment.

Haynes’ supporting cast are splendid, of course, with Bill Pullman briefly as a showboating lawyer, William Jackson Harper (late of TV’s The Good Place) shining in a few scenes, Robbins (always up for a movie about causes) quite excellent when he properly loses his temper, and Hathaway strong, despite the fact she spends much of the action either angry at Rob or wailing over him in hospital.

But it’s Ruffalo who holds everything together, and after his many turns as the Bruce Banner/The Hulk you could be forgiven for forgetting what a gifted actor he truly is. Without him Haynes’ film would have less heart, less rage and far less point.

And, like so many US movies of late, this has a powerfully political aspect, which is why Haynes became involved. However, it isn’t just a post-Trump pic or a slightly soapboxing leftie outing like Erin Brockovich: oh no, it’s intended as nothing less than a study of the corruption of America.

Reviewer Rating

Dark Waters (M) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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