The under-appreciated ‘Dark Waters’ is Todd Haynes at his most despairing

Mark Ruffalo in "Dark Waters."
Mark Ruffalo in the movie “Dark Waters.”
(Mary Cybulski / Focus Features)

Coolly hypnotic and bleak as the grave, “Dark Waters” tells the story of Rob Bilott (a superb Mark Ruffalo), the attorney who took on the chemical giant DuPont and its horrific history of corporate and environmental malfeasance. As a scenario straight out of the muckraker-drama playbook that includes “A Civil Action” and “Erin Brockovich,” it doesn’t sound like an intuitive choice of material for the director Todd Haynes, aptly described by my colleague Kenneth Turan in his review as “a filmmaker who never does anything the expected way.”

But that talent for defying expectations served Haynes well on a movie that only looks conventional in its broadest narrative outlines. Released last year to much less fanfare than it deserved (and now available for home viewing), “Dark Waters” is like a nuts-and-bolts procedural companion piece to “Safe,” Haynes’ seminal 1995 film about environmental malaise. It also offers further evidence of the genius of his regular cinematographer, Edward Lachman, shooting in a dark palette that captures the mood of a waking, ever-present nightmare.