Dark Waters

Review by Hannah Strong @thethirdhan

Directed by

Todd Haynes


Anne Hathaway Mark Ruffalo Tim Robbins


Wonderstruck was a disappointment, but never count Haynes out.


You’ll never look at a frying pan in the same way again.

In Retrospect.

This one stays with you, tightly-coiled and quietly horrifying.

Mark Ruffalo takes on a giant chemical company in Todd Haynes’ gripping procedural drama.

There’s a scene in Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters in which corporate defence attorney-turned-environmental lawyer Robert Bilot (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) have a tense conversation about the case he’s working on, proving that American chemicals giant DuPont has been knowingly poisoning the land of Parkersburg, West Virginia.

In one telling shot, the pair stand alone in the night, illuminated beneath the garish neon signage of a Benihana steakhouse. The two small figures pale in comparison with the red colossus of capitalism looming over them, ugly and intrusive against the sleek darkness. It’s an exquisite moment of postmodern despair redolent of the haunting sensibility of Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting ‘Nighthawks’, itself an icon of American realism.

The term ‘realism’ isn’t usually associated with Todd Haynes, whose work is powered by a more fantastical visual language. But certainly the themes he has dealt with in the past remain as vital now as they did when he began his career. Dark Waters, based on a true story, is no exception, as it examines how institutions established to protect society are built to fail, and it is all the more remarkable for its understated intensity. There are no grand courtroom spectacles, or intense, half-shouted monologues; instead, there are moments of delicate levity, juxtaposed with bleakness rooted in harsh reality.

Bilott has spent his entire career in Cincinnati getting corporations off the legal hook, when an associate of his elderly grandmother personally seeks out his legal counsel, convinced his cattle are being poisoned by an industrial waste site next to his property. Somewhat reluctantly, Bilott begins to look into the case, though a lifetime helping environmental giants avoid legal trouble can’t possibly prepare him for the uphill battle he faces – one that lasts two decades, and exposes the public to a harsh reality about the seemingly innocuous products in just about every American home.

Yet even with irrefutable proof of malfeasance, there’s often a sense of unwillingness among the larger public to believe those in power would knowingly fail us, or even an apathy regarding our collective power to change the system. To put Bilott’s case simply: you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

There is a quiet, creeping sense of dread throughout Dark Waters, which blends horror and neo-noir elements with the structure of a political thriller to create an absorbing, fiercely original end product. Ruffalo does his best work in years as Bilott, furious, exhausted, terrified and determined as he fights against an enemy across the years who always seems too big to fail. His obsessiveness evokes memories of David Fincher’s Zodiac, but there is no serial killer on the loose here, only disinterested lawyers and businessmen who are not afraid of Bilott because they created the system he’s fighting.

It is a searing indictment of failure at the highest level of command; a denouncement of power structures still in place. It leaves you with an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. After all, how many stories like this are out there, yet to come to light? Good luck sleeping with that haunting thought on your mind.

Published 25 Feb 2020

Tags: Mark Ruffalo Todd Haynes


Wonderstruck was a disappointment, but never count Haynes out.


You’ll never look at a frying pan in the same way again.

In Retrospect.

This one stays with you, tightly-coiled and quietly horrifying.

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