Dark Waters, the latest effort from Todd Haynes, lacks the louder signifiers of the filmmaker’s recognizable, auteurist style, but it shouldn’t be such a mystery to critics why he chose to make it. Sure, a prestige drama that functions like a throwback legal thriller isn’t in the same wheelhouse as Carol or Far from Heaven, but this isn’t a simple work-for-hire throwaway job. There’s a scene in Dark Waters where a lawyer (played with scenery-chewing aplomb by Bill Pullman) outlines the subtle art of wringing personal stories from callers in class action suits. With a huckster’s grin, he waxes about a jury needing to see the human element behind all the evidence.

For Dark Waters, an efficient film culled from a lengthy true story with a complex narrative, a storyteller of Haynes’ emotive power is necessary to help the audience feel through all the information they have to consume in order to grasp the tale. The film follows Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), the attorney who devoted the majority of his adult professional life to battling the humongous corporation DuPont over their waste practices, shady experiments and generally fucking evil business propositions that plagued a West Virginia town and countless others. Unfortunately, it’s a logline that reads all too familiar, but movies like this keep getting made because capitalism breeds stories like this year after year. It’s just that this time, that tried-and-true formula is being executed by a master craftsman who helps elevate the material, not just stylistically, but humanistically.

Anyone who has ever seen a courtroom drama about an underdog going up against a Big Business titan could probably sketch out this film’s beats from memory, if not pop cultural osmosis, but the script, from Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, prunes and shears the unwieldy structure of its real-life source material into something that packs a great deal of scope into a less meandering form factor. The story spans from the late ‘90s to the present day, with the years piling on as Bilott’s family struggles over his professional obsession and the many clients affected by the case get sicker and are ostracized by their neighbors, many of whom are employed by and show unending fealty to DuPont. But while the legal arc is the film’s spine, its sinew is in the exploration of class and circumstance that its narrative presents.

When we meet Bilott, he works for a big law firm and has just made partner, a friendly and unassuming guy from West Virginia who only ends up with this case because the man that brings it to him (Bill Camp) knows his grandmother. In the exploratory section of the film, his interactions with DuPont’s Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) are so chummy because the men are bound by their shared status as moneyed individuals in black ties, but the moment Bilott realizes a hint of DuPont’s crimes and presses Donnelly, the company man calls him a “hick” with the relative hateful intonation of a racial slur.

This classist divide is never made clearer than with William Jackson Harper’s background player, James Ross, another partner at Bilott’s firm. As the only black man at the table, he so painfully covets the stature of their organization that he’s deeply insulted Bilott would risk their cachet to help people who have clearly been wronged by this terrible company. It permeates the whole film. The way Haynes shows the small town through Bilott’s eyes, his car drifting through Clarksburg streets and seeing DuPont’s name emblazoned on every community center and town square, with the town’s inhabitants brainwashed prisoners made loyal defenders through silly gifts and paltry financial support that pales in comparison to what they’re truly owed.

Anne Hathaway does more with less as his thankless wife who sacrifices her own legal career to raise their family while Bilott pours himself into this never-ending legal battle. Ruffalo is the real star of the show, however, with his warm, painful and deceptively unassuming performance. He doesn’t have a single moment as showy and sound-bitable as his explosion in Spotlight, but what he accomplishes so quietly is a stunning portrait of a man doing the right thing at great detriment to himself and those around him.

Dark Waters works so well because, on a very primal level, it is a story about a broken system and how gruesomely it grinds up any decent person who dares to cock up its gears. Haynes so lovingly renders an endearing image of this man who dutifully does the work, never getting a triumphant speech or a killer Oscar moment.

Even when the film sees fit to let the audience have the feel-good moment of catharsis we all know must be coming, it immediately undercuts it with chilling reality and the discomfiting knowledge that even that climactic win was followed by even more years of fighting. Dark Waters is special because it’s not about dramatically building to an inevitable victory, but about the importance of fighting every day anyway, knowing such a conclusion may never come.

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