Todd Haynes’ filmmaking career did not start off with sunshine and roses. His first feature film received an NC-17 rating and was labeled by conservative groups as “pornographic.” He would continue to look at the outsiders in society through multidimensional biopics like “I’m Not There” and queer period pieces like “Carol.” Haynes’ latest work may be tamer than his early career films but it is still just as shocking.
“Dark Waters,” tells the true story of attorney Rob Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, whose tenacious work exposed the DuPont chemical company’s long history of knowingly polluting America. Like all revolutions, it is started with a spark provided by a down on his luck farmer named Wilbur Tennant, played by Bill Camp, whose farm has received the blunt end of this contamination.
As a character, Wilbur Tennant is a strong presence. Bill Camp’s performance does not show any pretense of Oscar bait, and this is yet another supporting role that confirms he is one of the great modern-day character actors.
It is also great to see Ruffalo take a break from his role as Bruce Banner in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The publicity tour for the film has shown he really cares about portraying this story. He also produced “Dark Waters,” and it is one that should be known more than it is. His understated work as an obsessive person trying to uncover corruption, can rightfully be compared to his supporting performance in 2015’s “Spotlight.”
Just like the best picture winner, which was about a group of reporters uncovering sex abuse in the Catholic Church, “Dark Waters” is not interested in glamorizing the investigative process. The entire narrative is structured chronologically, and a literal timeline appears whenever the story has to jump a couple of years ahead. Spanning almost thirty years, the production design remains understated, real and prevents any lapse of believability.
Speaking of design, the movie is not set in just one genre. While this biopic is correctly labeled as a court drama, there are some scenes that dip into horror. The chemical pollution caused cancer, birth defects and would also kill livestock. One particularly chilling moment shows a farmyard with mounds of dirt as Tennant tells Billot that over a hundred cows just died.
The cinematography itself is sickly — sometimes it is helping the story and sometimes it is too noticeable for its own good. Haynes’ longtime cinematographer, Edward Lachman gives the whole story a chilling blue tint that gives off an almost drowning feeling with spurts of dirty yellow hues in other scenes.
There may be a reason that “Dark Waters” was not given any awards recognition. It is a story that may not have the flash and excitement of “Parasite” or “Marriage Story,” but the story is necessary. It has quiet defiance as it stands up to the big corporations, making sure that this story will never be forgotten.
“Dark Waters” is also now available to stream on the Cardinal Video Den at res-movie.plattsburgh.edu
Email Cameron Kaercher at email@example.com