I’ve often wondered if Wes Anderson were to drop his dioramas and deadpan style, could he make a good, straight up drama? What does a Christopher Nolan musical look like? Does Quentin Tarantino have a Tiffany Haddish comedy in him? Can auteurs put their stamp on made-for-hire movies? These questions keep me up at night. Well, finally when it comes to Todd Haynes, as idiosyncratic as they come, we now know what he brings to a procedural drama. The answer? Hmmmmm. Be careful what you wish for?
That doesn’t mean Dark Waters, the true story of a corporate attorney who sues his own client doesn’t have merit. I actually think the movie works really well, but I can’t identify the filmmaker who brought us Velvet Goldmine, Carol or Far From Heaven here. Written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, the story spans decades, promisingly opening with an eerie Jaws-like sequence in which some 1970s teens swim naked in a polluted West Virginia lake. You can feel Haynes in this scene more than anywhere else in the film, considering its haunting, dreamlike imagery.
Flashing forward to the late 1990s, the story properly starts when a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (a magnificent Bill Camp) barges in on Cincinnati Corporate Attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to demand he return to his home town in West Virginia to investigate why his cattle have all started dying. At first dismissing him as a crazy rube, Bilott decides to make the 120 mile drive to see for himself. It doesn’t hurt that his biggest client, DuPont, has a plant there which just may be poisoning the water supply. Spoiler alert: They are!
One night at a fancy dinner, Bilott confronts a DuPont executive (a perfectly insidious Victor Garber) and gets such an obvious brush-off that he can’t help but go down that rabbit hole. Risking his standing at his law firm, presided over by Tom Terp (an unpredictable and passionate performance by Tim Robbins), to launch an investigation which takes over 20 years to complete. It nearly kills him and deeply affects his marriage to his wife, a former attorney played by Anne Hathaway, and relationship with his son. Think Erin Brockovich without the humor and you’ll get a good sense of the tone of this dreary, dark, nihilistic film.
In 1995, Todd Haynes made the film, Safe, starring Julianne Moore as a woman with severe environmental allergies. It was weird, experimental, and abstractly haunting. Dark Waters feels like the straightforward cousin to that film as it explores corporate greed and cover-ups and the lives left in the balance. Yes, the great cinematographer Ed Lachman has a wonderful way of making you feel every bitter cold early sunset with his black, grey and dark blue color schemes. Yes, the very talented and versatile production designer Hannah Beachler knows her way around working class homes. It all comes together as a consistently bleak presentation, tailor made to make you feel the sheer hopelessness of taking on “the man”.
Ruffalo does incredible work as a defeated, hunched over workaholic who never gives up the fight. We see nothing showy in his performance. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders when he realizes that DuPont has exposed almost the entire population on earth to harmful chemicals. Hathaway also does excellent work as someone in the typical “wife” role who refuses to be identified as such. She very slyly walks that fine line to give us something heartfelt and strong. Bill Camp, however, walks away with the film with his almost indecipherable drawl and righteous anger at a system which ignores the safety and wellbeing of the hard working citizens of the world. Often specializing in low key characterizations, he switches gears and goes unforgettably big and loud. In what amounts to a compelling yet quite ordinary telling of an important story, it’s Camp who cuts through. Todd Haynes may not have made a “Todd Haynes Movie” with Dark Waters, but at least he has given us Great Camp.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Dark Waters gets a 0 out of 50. This very queer director has enough on his plate with this epic tale to bring them thar gay folks into these dusky hollers.
By Glenn Gaylord
Dark Waters is currently in select U.S. theaters.