The legal thriller used to be a big deal Hollywood, whether it was an absurd but entertaining John Grisham adaptation or a real-life story like A Civil Action. But along with almost every type of movie that doesn’t involve superheroes or animated animals, it’s all but disappeared from multiplexes.
And so even if it doesn’t seem like it, Todd Haynes is actually a great choice to attempt to resurrect the genre. He’s succeeded at all kinds of moribund genres. He’s made spectacular ’50s melodramas, silent films and unconventional musician biopics. So even if this is him at his most understated, it’s in keeping with both his idiosyncratic takes and the environmental anxiety he explored in Safe.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Robert Billot, who’s just made partner at a firm that specializes in corporate defense. When a friend of his grandmother’s – played terrifically as usual by Bill Camp – asks him to look into the death of his cattle and the possible implication of the chemical giant DuPont. It’s a case local attorneys are too scared to take on, and Billot figures he’ll do some basic discovery and maybe reach a quick settlement. But once he realizes DuPont is hiding a lot of information about the community they’re so intertwined with, the case drags on for years as he gets mountains of documentation that reveals the extent of the deception and evil. (Yes, he gets to say, “They knew!”)
Anne Hathaway gets everything she can out of an absolutely thankless role as Robert’s wife Sarah, a former attorney herself. Tim Robbins gives his best performance in a very long time as Robert’s mentor and senior partner, and there are terrific cameos from Victor Garber, Bill Pullman and Mare Winningham. But other than Ruffalo, the real star of the film is Ed Lachman, whose intentionally grainy cinematography gives a real texture to rural farms, bland offices, and ritzy ballrooms.
In breaking with feel-good flicks like Erin Brockovich, this is a lot more realistic about how slow the gears of justice are, and how captive local and federal governments are to giant multibillion-dollar corporations. If you’re looking for a big, triumphant ending, this is not your film.
Ultimately, Dark Waters is grim but engaging and shouldn’t get washed away in the flood of new releases this holiday season.