Dark Waters review – thrilling and stylish look at American corporate savagery

A potentially simple legal drama is elevated into something far more urgent and powerful in the hands of Todd Haynes and Mark Ruffalo

After the mixed reception to his deeply flawed slice of child-friendly whimsy, Wonderstruck, it’s no surprise that writer-director Todd Haynes would follow it up with a “safer,” awards-friendly legal procedural. Yet in Haynes’s hands, Dark Waters amounts to something far greater: a furious indictment of American corporate savagery that is urgent and deeply political, landing somewhere between thriller and documentary without ever losing control of its tone or message.

In a sharp coup of casting, this tale of activism has a true activist at its heart. Mark Ruffalo has been one of Hollywood’s most outspoken left-wingers and his presence at the centre of Dark Waters merely adds to its politically powerful credentials. Ruffalo plays real-life lawyer Rob Bilott, who turned his back on his high-paying chemical corporation clients to defend a West Virginia community from those very same chemical giants after discovering wanton and wilful poisoning of their town’s water and earth by the DuPont chemical company.

Haynes and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa pace this transition superbly as the true extent of DuPont’s borderline sadistic negligence becomes apparent to Bilott. Haynes manages to make the water look outright sinister, bubbling and trickling through decimated landscapes that positively reek of decay, and Ruffalo plays his character’s notes of growing horror with understated skill. Bilott’s disgust – and genuine fear – at what he discovers is contagious, and the flame of fury that burns brighter with every scene compels you to care along with him.

Dark Waters is not content to just show us the DuPont story. Instead it examines the deep-rooted sicknesses within America’s psyche to show what made DuPont’s particular evil so worryingly easy to get away with. It’s very rare that a film has the guts to go after the American public’s rather pathetic fealty to faceless corporations, but Haynes follows that thread throughout. Government officials are bought and paid for while insisting that DuPont’s crimes shouldn’t be thoroughly investigated due to their standing in the US business community. Even Bilott’s wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) struggles to believe her husband’s word over the company’s. It’s brave, disquieting writing made all the more affecting by the sickly grey colour palette that suggests there is something deeply wrong with the world.

Class and racial divisions seep in as well. Bilott’s West Virginia origins make him an automatic outcast, the skin-deep politeness of his contemporaries receding the instant he steps out of line, and an all-white corporate dinner party waited on by an all-black staff tells the story of these elites with astounding efficiency. Bilott’s legal case lasted almost twenty years, and Haynes’s view of both the progress and stagnancy of the US in that time is carefully but effectively communicated in smart production design and an ever-changing set of perfectly cast supporting actors.

There are a couple of scenery-chewing performances, and it does end up running a little too long, but Dark Waters is a truly vital movie, made with an urgency and style that is so often lacking in this genre. Haynes could have made something ordinary here and not faced much backlash, but he’s gone above and beyond, inserting an auteur’s sensibility and an activist’s rage into a gripping procedural.

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