Whistleblowers are in the news these days, and just like that, here comes a whistleblower film: Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters,” the based-on-fact story of Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), who took on a case that revealed how the vast corporation DuPont exposed a community to serious chemical harm. Unfolding over two decades, it was an unlikely case for Bilott — a partner at a posh law firm who was more accustomed to defending Big Chem corporations than accusing them — and one that ended up obsessing him.
It’s a thoughtful, stylishly directed film with an important message — so why does it feel just the littlest bit flat? Perhaps because it so carefully follows the well-traveled ground of this type of movie: the sleek conference rooms full of chuckling men in suits; the One Good Man initially reluctant to help but drawn in by the power of the case; the sad-eyed regular folks on whose behalf he fights; the blandly supportive spouse (Anne Hathaway, her talents mostly wasted here); the mysterious late-night scene in a dark parking garage (a staple of this genre); the careful explanation of science, delivered from one character to another but really intended for the audience; the long-awaited Big Reveal.
All of this works, for the most part, but only occasionally surprises. Haynes is an inherently elegant director (see his beautiful romantic drama “Carol” at once, if you haven’t already), and “Dark Waters” often looks striking; note the malevolence with which his camera eyes a pitcher of water, or the dark roil of the creek that carried poisons downstream. And Ruffalo, as a character more polished and reserved than he usually plays, is compelling as ever; he’s able to convey the sense of time passing, with the case weighing down on him more heavily as years slip by. Bilott gets paler, more haunted, caught in a legal nightmare from which he can’t seem to wake up. Ruffalo makes him an appealing crusader — and an unexpected hero.
★★½ “Dark Waters,” with Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Bill Pullman. Directed by Todd Haynes, from a screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan. 126 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language. Opens Nov. 27 at multiple theaters.