After the curious incident of 2017's Wonderstruck - the much-touted Cannes selection with a starry cast and clear crossover potential that seemed to open on one UK screen for one week only - Dark Waters finds the generally astute Todd Haynes committing to making the kind of movie the studio system feels at home around and knows how to sell. (I caught a trailer for it at my local megaplex a full two months before it was due to open, which represents more of a push than its predecessor ever got.) Adapted by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan from Nathaniel Rich's 2016 New York Times article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare", this is one of those one-man-against-the-system social justice procedurals Hollywood makes to make us and itself feel better about the world, given a minor twist by the fact its crusading hero emerges from deep within the system he comes to take on. Rob Bilott (played here by Mark Ruffalo) was a corporate defence lawyer working out of Cleveland's ivory towers for the likes of Exxon when a farmer marched brusquely into his offices, claiming a connection to the lawyer's grandmother back in West Virginia, and that 190 of his cows had been poisoned by run-off from an adjacent site owned by the petrochemical giants DuPont. Over a longish-seeming two hours, we have time to weigh just what Bilott and the West Virginia locals found themselves up against: not just the might of a company that had developed a reputation as a household favourite ("good people", as one plaintiff phrased it), but resistance from within Bilott's own firm - headed by a frowningly patrician Tim Robbins - who questioned why on earth our hero would want to prosecute such potentially generous clients.
With the narrative unfolding in many of the expected directions - of course there's a meeting in an underground carpark - those of us who've seen ten or more of these films will find our minds turning to the question of style. The formal flourishes that sustained (and arguably sunk) Wonderstruck have here been toned down. Haynes's regular cinematographer Ed Lachman adorns the film with big, widescreen images - working particular compositional wonders with a roomful of the discovery materials DuPont swamped Bilott with - and generates a perfectly fine ambient look influenced to some degree by Soderbergh's Traffic (muted blue for the exteriors, muted golds whenever our hero comes in from the cold); as Ruffalovian procedurals go, this one's rather more thoughtfully framed than the workshirt-plain Spotlight, a movie almost made to be watched on awards-season screeners. An even greater attention has been paid to the performers' styling, though, and here Dark Waters betrays its somewhat obvious and superficial approach to this story. Ruffalo has been dowdied down with a side parting and a jowlier look than he'd have on the red carpet; Bill Camp, as the farmer who first raises awareness of this malfeasance, sports eyebrows that resemble caterpillars after they too had supped from the poisoned water table and swelled to the proportions of Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World; Anne Hathaway, altogether overqualified in the role of Bilott's wife Sarah, gets a soccer-mom makeover, as befits a character who spends the longest time here doing no more than keeping house.
That this is Haynes-goes-Hollywood (as opposed to Haynes-goes-his-own-way) is apparent from the emphasis Dark Waters places squarely on the one man going up against the system: these three acts witness a guy everybody would underestimate were he not played by the Hulk going through boxes, discovering the extent of the pollution, and then going hard at the polluters. Somewhere in here is an instructive story about corporate thinking and spin: the case turned on how a breakthrough marketed as a timesaver - the Teflon that DuPont applied to the world's pans and carpets - in fact proved to be a killer. You can see why these stellar creatives were drawn to it, and drawn to it now, with the world finally waking up to the myriad ways in which corporations have fundamentally altered the make-up of our surroundings (and our bodies). You can see why Ruffalo, in particular, was drawn to take a producer's credit. He gets to act obsessed and tenacious - sounding distant echoes of his work in David Fincher's Zodiac - and return to the naturalistic mode he mastered before serving time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; he gets a lot to do, in other words, but disappointingly a lot of that is simple laying out. The story has been reduced to the bare essentials of its timeline, cookie-cuttered to fit a genre prone to telling rather than showing: the obviousness spikes during one Robbins rant ("We should be outraged!") before peaking with Bilott's spluttered last-reel "The system is rigged!" and Haynes' deployment of "I Won't Back Down" over the closing credits, put there for the benefit of any dimbulbed onlookers who haven't yet got the point.
You can even see why Haynes might have been attracted to this material, beyond the renewed visibility it might have given him coming off a commercial failure and going into another awards season. This story allows him to oversee justice for the marginalised (several real-life plaintiffs recur in cameo roles), reconnect with actors after the extensive effects work of his previous movie, and - just perhaps - fashion a reverse-angle sequel to his 1995 breakthrough [safe], in which Julianne Moore played a Californian homemaker succumbing to an extreme allergic reaction to the modern world. (At first, she wonders if the chemicals in her dry cleaning - chemicals not unlike those patented by DuPont - are to blame.) Yet a comparison of the two films only points up what was so intriguing about one, and what's underwhelming about the other. [safe]'s reluctance to explain the whys and wherefores of its story were what made it so haunting; it's why the film took up residence in your brain, where it could be replayed and mulled over as anything from a riff on the AIDS traumas of the preceding decade to a response to the growing environmental crisis facing the planet. In Dark Waters, everything that [safe] left open to interpretation is worked through, explained and ploddingly squared away. That can't help but prove reassuring on some level, and maybe that justice - a straightforward righting of gross structural wrongs - is what the audience is thirsting for in the first months of 2020. Yet how disappointing that a film so keen to press upon us Bilott's achievements in bucking the system and breaking the rules should find Haynes on his very best, very dullest behaviour.
Dark Waters opens in selected cinemas from Friday.