Given the queer sensibility of his filmography, one would be forgiven for assuming Todd Haynes’ attachment to Dark Waters is perhaps a “director for hire” gig temperament. His films – Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, and Carol, to name a few – have never sacrificed their own peculiar, unique mentality, and something like Dark Waters, with its ripped from the headlines narrative, feels a little too straightforward.
By his own admission though this is a project he personally sought out, as did lead Mark Ruffalo (an environmental activist in his own right) who similarly was drawn to the subject matter at hand. Said subject matter revolves around the chemical industry, specifically those based in Cincinnati where, in the early 90’s, corporate defence lawyer Robert Billott (Ruffalo) receives a surprise visit from an irate West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp, close to being indecipherable at times) who demands Robert look into the mysterious deaths of several townsfolk and animals in his town of Parkersburg, incidences he believes are linked to DuPont, a global chemical corporation that Robert just so happens to have assisted in several legal cases.
Initially dismissive of the farmer’s claims, Robert eventually opts to visit the small town – his mother does reside there, after all – and ultimately spends hours scouring the video tapes he has been left which depict chemicals being poured into the water supply, contributing to the many deaths that shocked the town into taking action. Tragically, this would become a legal battle that would last for the better part of two decades as Robert sues the very company (DuPont) he has formed a working relationship with.
Given the subject matter and the rather muted, underwhelming manner Haynes has approached it, some could readily attack Dark Waters as being too quiet a picture; this is especially true when looking at Robert’s marriage too (Anne Hathaway plays his wife, Sarah) as that relationship never feels wholly realised. And though narrative impact is lost due to several years in the story passing in mere minutes thanks to the court case being the real focus of screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (21 Bridges, Deepwater Horizon), the film succeeds at showcasing a silent horror, something that feels organic to the proceedings and not an unnecessary exaggeration.
A fascinating, terrifying story whose ingredients linger thanks to their true-to-life mentality – the simplest shot of a young girl on a bicycle smiling to reveal jet black teeth is alarming in its realistic horror – this could very well be Haynes’ most mature work to date. There’s nothing inherently fancy about what’s transpiring on screen but the very fact that it was a lawsuit that would trickle down over the decades and impact close to 100% of the global population – yes readers, we’re all doomed, apparently – more than proves that the power of a good story can outweigh the flashiest of technical distractions.