‘Dark Waters’ Review: A Hauntingly Tense Film With a Haynes Touch

'Dark Waters' © Focus Features

Many may find it a strange choice that the director of Carol and Safe chose to tackle a true story about a chemical company as his next film, but upon seeing it, you will come to realize that Todd Haynes is truly a versatile director with vision and clarity. What could have been the typical procedural film we so often see depicting true to life events and scandals, becomes an original film that uses tension and dread to tell a story about how important it is to keep fighting. 

Dark Waters stars Mark Ruffalo as the desperate yet determined lawyer Robert Bilott who, as a favor, takes on a case concerning the possibility of chemical poisoning in a local farmer’s cows due to the chemical company giant DuPont. What he at first thinks is a small problem with an easy answer and solution, turns into a years-long battle with the chemical company as he fights to save people’s lives. As Bilott dives deeper into the investigation, his life begins to fall apart around him. His wife Sarah Bilott, played by an underused Anne Hathaway, adds to the despair and anxiety that the family, and by the use of excellent filmmaking, the audience, experiences.

Mark Ruffalo in ‘Dark Waters’ © Focus Features

Mark Ruffalo inhabits his role completely. His quiet and humble demeanor in his character transforms throughout the film into a tired and hopeless but still fighting lawyer. You can see this through his physical performance as his body posture changes and he appears to be hunching over by the end of the film, crushed by the tension that he has been feeling. As an audience member, you are with him the entire time and can feel that own tension in your chest, in the sweat of your palms, and the racing of your heart. 

What aids in this closeness to Ruffalo’s character is the tight cinematography, sticking close to the characters and the environment. There are many slow zooms that create a haunting atmosphere, combined with the dreary blue and gray colors that flood the film. There are hints of yellow and green that bleed into some of the otherwise dull colors onscreen that are reminiscent of Carol. Overall the film looks stunning, which you can expect from any Todd Haynes film, especially with his long-term cinematographer Edward Lachman. 

Anne Hathaway in ‘Dark Waters’ © Focus Features

What makes this film feel so different from most other true story films is Haynes’s reluctance to let up on the tension. The opening scene features teens sneaking into a river to go skinny dipping. As they are chased out by workers, chemicals are being sprayed into the water they had just been swimming in. The simple scene is made harrowing by the cinematography and score. After this, there are about three times in this film when the audience is allowed to breathe. Every other scene is a battle, as people grow angrier at the slowness of the law process. They constantly ask “Why is nothing being done?” Bilott desperately tries to explain to them that these things take time, as he also is trying to get answers himself. As each step of the investigation goes on, the audience itself begins to grow as desperate as these people. Why did this take so long? 

This isn’t to say that the film is fast-paced and action-packed at all. In fact, it was quite slow-moving and at times this became frustrating. But this only further added to the story the film was telling. As each battle seemed to be finally won, the screen would cut to black and another year would pass by. There is no fast forward button in the world of this film. Haynes makes the audience feel each grueling step that the people who were fighting had to go through.

Mark Ruffalo in ‘Dark Waters’ © Focus Features

The relentlessness of this film is truly what makes it stand out. With each aching scene, breathtaking cut, and the disheartening passage of time, the film hammers home what every single person in America should know: The ones with money who are in charge do not have our best interests in mind. They care about their power and money. This should make us angry and it should frighten us. Dark Waters is one of the most horrifying films to be released this year. From the first minutes, this film has its hands wrapped around your throat, with little release throughout its duration. It holds its audience captive, saying: Look at what has happened. This can happen again. It will happen again. But We must keep fighting.

“The system is rigged. They want us to think it will protect us. We protect us. We do.”

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