The pensive legal movie was once a Hollywood standby, reliably delivering courtroom tension, grandstanding performances, and a satisfying assurance of justice that was only enhanced when the story behind the script turned out to be true. Todd Haynes’s new film, Dark Waters, fits that bill: It chronicles the Cincinnati attorney Robert Bilott’s ongoing efforts, beginning in the ’90s, to expose how the company DuPont continued to use toxic chemicals for decades after learning that they caused fatal diseases. As a piece of pure exposition, Dark Waters is interesting enough. But around the hard work and do-goodery, Haynes also provides a sense of crushing dread—the kind of unsolvable paranoia these procedure-bound movies usually work to counter.
Haynes, one of American independent cinema’s most vibrant and challenging directors, isn’t an obvious choice for this project. His most memorable works, including Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, and Carol, are period pieces about life on the margins of American society, resplendent with lush costuming and precise camera aesthetics. Dark Waters, by contrast, has a gray, washed-out color palette and is mostly set in boardrooms and offices, where its rumpled hero, Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo), tries to get to the bottom of DuPont’s business practices. Still, Dark Waters has plenty in common with one of Haynes’s best films: 1995’s Safe, an uncomfortable psychological drama that stars Julianne Moore as a woman who is suddenly besieged by symptoms that make her day-to-day life complete torture. In Dark Waters, the illnesses are more commonplace (mostly cancers and birth defects), but the mundanity becomes similarly frightening. The dull details of American existence—bathing, cooking, drinking water—are weaponized in unseen ways that even doctors can barely understand.