This film remains in a UK slot selected to take advantage of an Oscar campaign, a campaign which never actually materialised; that’s a big shock in that director Todd Haynes has been an awards darling via I’m Not There or Carol. Critics seem to have turned up their noses at Dark Waters because it doesn’t feature the director’s usual extravagances; the lush 1950’s period detail of Carol, the off-beat asides about Oscar Wilde and aliens in Velvet Goldmine. But Haynes has a pre-occupation with alienation and the environment that runs back to 1995’s Safe, and just because he’s fused these concerns with a tried and tested Erin Brockovich-type detective story doesn’t mean we should relegate Dark Waters to the status of a minor work.
The Spotlight producers are at work here, as is the same star, Mark Ruffalo, who plays Robert Bilott, a lawyer who gets wind that there’s something in the water in his West Virginia hometown. He travels back, and runs foul of various authority figures who don’t want word getting out that the something in the water is created by the manufacture of Teflon, and careless dumping procedures have affected a whole generation. Bill Pullman does a great job as the chemical-plant baddie, while Anne Hathaway doesn’t have much to do as Billott’s long-suffering wife.
As with Spotlight, much of the film is spent watching Ruffalo looking through large piles of paper, yet break-throughs are fewer and further between. But the star is good as always, and the point of the film, that criminal activities go on in plain sight until we make a point of investigating, is worth considering. It’s frustrating that when Haynes wants to depict literary or cultural figures, the world pays rapt attention, but when he has something to say about genuine issues ie the environment, pundits seem to think he’s treading water. He’s a big-name director, and even if this film is a little dry, it’s a modern, meaningful film about a genuinely concerning issue.