Led by a fantastic Mark Ruffalo performance, Dark Waters’ true story of corporate defense attorney Robert Billot taking on the DuPont chemical company for illegally testing chemicals in a West Virginia community is fascinating. Screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa fill their script with wonderful exchanges and powerful underdog moments that allow Ruffalo to shine. A lot of it is riveting stuff, so it’s a shame that director Todd Haynes carries a rather dull vision behind the camera.
From Far From Heaven to 2015’s Carol, the filmmaker has consistently brought a unique and enticing visual style to practically all of his works. This is not the case with Dark Waters, which is full of lifeless, static shots that don’t quite make it clear where the audience’s focus should be in the frame.
On top of this weakness, the editing is incredibly messy. Scenes awkwardly conclude immediately after an actor expresses something at full intensity — an effect that winds up being unintentionally amusing. It could be admirable if Haynes was going for a documentary-style approach, but he insists on filling the film with rather odd stylistic flourishes that stick out like a sore thumb. The music, by composer Marcelo Zarvos, is also not well utilized, with most of the score feeling as if it’s manipulating viewers in how to feel, rather than letting them take in the emotional weight of the scenes by themselves.
The final act of Dark Waters falls apart and suggests that the film may have needed to be cut by about 20 minutes. With the preceding hour and a half having placed so much emphasis on the overall conflict between DuPont and Billot and so little on our lead character’s relationship with his wife (played with trademark overintensity by Anne Hathaway), the shift in focus to Robert’s domestic life is somewhat jarring.
However, at the center of it all is Ruffalo, who proves yet again that he’s one of the greatest on-screen “everymen.” An environmental advocate himself, the actor remains magnetic and completely committed to this story, even if the filmmaking seems like it’s on autopilot.
Dark Waters has a handful of issues that keep it from being great and doesn’t say anything a well-made documentary on the subject couldn’t relay better. But Ruffalo’s performance, a well-written script and a timely story of corporate overreach make the film worth seeking out despite some of its more glaring problems.