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Filmmaker Todd Haynes arrives on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2018.

ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images

Being the acclaimed filmmaker of decidedly art-house films, Todd Haynes might appear an unusual directorial choice for a decades-spanning legal thriller like Dark Waters.

Adapted from a New York Times Magazine article, the film follows the true story of Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate environmental lawyer who uncovers how one of the world’s largest companies, DuPont, is poisoning a small West Virginia town. Having just been made partner by a prestigious Cincinnati law firm that represents chemical corporations, Bilott sees every aspect of his life and career tested as he goes deeper into what turns into a 15-year fight against DuPont.

Review: Todd Haynes and Mark Ruffalo close the case against DuPont in the thrilling and surprising Dark Waters

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Haynes – whose previous work includes Safe, Far from Heaven, Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There and Carol – understands that Dark Waters seems like a huge artistic change of pace for him. “Sure, there are people who have created expectations about my work based on what I’ve done in the past who might not expect this particular kind of genre to be something that I would have found interesting,” Haynes says over the phone. But, with a laugh, he goes on to add that he found this latest project brought him back to his love of classic “whistle-blower” cinema: All the President’s Men, Klute, The Insider.

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Mark Ruffalo, left, and director Todd Haynes on the set of Dark Waters.

Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

Watching those movies, Haynes would ask himself, “What is it exactly about these films that they could get under my skin?” The answer: a powerful sense of paranoia and tenacious emotional pull. “There was an undertow that starts to generate as you see these individuals stumbling onto things they didn’t expect to find,” Haynes says.

Ultimately, what affected Haynes the most was how Bilott’s story of taking on DuPont found a regular man confronting a system of power. And while Dark Waters may seem like it will fit the whistle-blower type of legal drama that audiences are used to, Haynes’s direction focuses on what this type of confrontation can do to a person: “How that places you in the world and [in your] relationships to your communities, friends and families – I find that so heartbreaking and compelling.”

The film begins with Bilott ejecting Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from his grandmother’s hometown of Parkersberg, W. Va., from his office. After Tennant tells Bilott that his grandmother’s neighbour suggested he see him for counsel, the lawyer explains that he represents corporations against farmers, not the other way around. Ultimately, Bilott takes the case as a favour to his grandmother, not knowing that the next 15 years of his life will be spent taking down DuPont, which includes uncovering the truth about how Teflon has been poisoning Americans and the rest of the world.

Ruffalo stars as environmental lawyer Robert Bilott.

Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

There is a point in the film when you think that the legal battle is truly over, that Bilott’s tireless work against a corporate behemoth has come to an end. But that’s not the case. Desiring to keep the film as realistic as possible, Haynes doesn’t try to search for a happy ending. “I don’t think it’s a consoling film," he says, “This film is more of a complicated and grown up movie that doesn’t have a simple solution and doesn’t end on a high note.”

Ultimately, Haynes wanted to put this type of story back in the audience’s hands: “You don’t end up feeling like great, problem solved! Let’s leave it to people like Rob Bilott.” Thinking about leadership around the world right now, including the very real struggle for water rights that permeates the news, Haynes says, “I think today and right now, politically, culturally, and environmentally this is an important time for people to realize that they can’t be passive.”

As we watch Bilott go deeper into DuPont’s history, we also see him come to the realization that having faith in regulatory systems or the government is futile – that people can only rely on each other.

“An entire network of people are required to take on a company as powerful as DuPont,” Haynes says. “And so it took everybody from Tom Terp [played by Tim Robbins] at the law firm in Cincinnati to all of the people in Parkersburg that he worked with.”

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The plot of Dark Waters is enough to make even the most ignorant to matters of corporate abuse begin questioning such giant businesses. But for Haynes, it also created a deeper appreciation for what it takes for someone like Bilott to dedicate his life to justice. “It made me appreciate the courage of people to step out of their known, comfortable, profitable places in their livelihoods.”

Throughout the film, we see Bilott take multiple pay cuts and deal with backlash from members of his own firm and family, turning what could be a dry legal drama into a true character study. Bilott is a quiet man whose wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), at one point begs him to just respond to her as they’re arguing. “There’s such a protective shell and barrier [with Bilott] that actually having a character like that offered, for me, all kinds of dramatic potential,” Haynes says of bringing Bilott to life. His rare outbursts seem earned, as we see the emotional toll of battling DuPont percolate in Ruffalo’s depiction of the character.

Anne Hathaway plays Bilott's wife Sarah.

Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

What moves the story forward ends up being the frustrations of Bilott and those who surround him. Sarah finds herself in a position where she believes in her husband’s righteous journey, but also fears for the toll it’s taking on their growing family. Adding to the realistic depiction of this difficult process – Haynes filmed Dark Waters in West Virginia and Ohio, featuring real people who had been affected by DuPont throughout.

“It keeps reminding you why you’re doing it, and what is unique and unexpected about these people,” Haynes says of the filming experience. “They were called upon entirely by accident, by fate, by abuses they didn’t even know they were victimized by,” Haynes explained.

But mostly, Haynes witnessed something remarkable about people who go through these abuses. “Once this happened to people, you can’t go back underground. You can’t put your heads back in the sand afterwards. It changes you forever.”

Dark Waters opens Nov. 29 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and across the country Dec. 6

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