Oscar-nominated director Todd Haynes (Carol, 2015) has crafted an intelligent, astute, real-life film about fighting for justice against enormous odds. A corporate lawyer (a reserved Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight, 2015) who defends large industrial companies starts investigating a small lawsuit from rural West Virginia in 1998 centered on dead farm animals and contaminated water. Searching through endless piles of paper (literally), the lawyer begins to discover repeated cover-ups of chemical pollution by the ubiquitous and mega-rich DuPont company and tries to bring their actions to justice.
Dark Waters is based on a heavy 2016 article in The New York Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich called The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare, so the screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa) deserve a lot of praise organizing such a complicated and decades-long true story into a film that is easy to follow and easy to relate to. The film has a serious tone that's maintained well throughout its 2 hours and 7 minutes runtime by its thoughtful director. It felt like Todd Haynes injected some of the quiet, emotional, domestic yearning from his past film triumphs (like Carol from 2015 or Far From Heaven from 2002) into a large-scale, underdog, enduring lawyer's battle. In comparing Dark Waters with other David and Goliath, true-life, legal stories, it's not as light as Erin Brockovich (2000), but it has more emotional heart than, say, A Civil Action (1998).
The film's ending works too hard to end on a happy or triumphant note. But Dark Waters is still a great option for movie viewers who want to think hard about the role of government and business in our country. And even though this film is well-executed, it will likely not be nominated for anything now that the Hollywood award season is ready to start. Yes, it's a good film. But it's just not as fresh or inspiring at the moment compared to the other films getting more praise this season.