Issue-oriented movies aren't uncommon, but this essential drama feels starker and truer than most; it's patient, unafraid, and stripped of any kind of hollow self-congratulations. Star Ruffalo is one of the keys to the success of Dark Waters, which is based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article; he burrows deep into a realistic, non-movie-star performance (he also produced the film). But the production's ringer is director Todd Haynes, who's best known for his luscious, edgy soap operas Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015) and their painterly color palettes. Earlier in his career, though, Haynes dealt directly with sickness in films like Poison (1991) and Safe (1995); the latter told the story of a woman suffering from some unknown, undefinable "environmental" disease.
That theme leads right into Dark Waters, and Haynes gives this movie the same queasy, unsettling touch. In one scene, Bilott questions a DuPont representative, showing him a photograph of a boy, Bucky Bailey -- the child of a woman who worked at DuPont -- who has drastic facial deformities; the corporate stooge can't even look at it. Later, Haynes shows us the actual, real-life child, now grown up, asking viewers to really look and not turn away. With the help of cinematographer Edward Lachman, Haynes treats the movie with an absence of color, focusing on airless board rooms, snowy, muddy exteriors, and a general sense of unhealthiness all around. It's as if the very air were toxic. As the movie continues, it becomes clear that there's no clear victor in this David and Goliath battle -- and in fact, the war goes on.