You know “Dark Waters” director Todd Haynes for his musings on sexuality and identity, for his fascination with vintage melodrama and the dubious underpinnings of music stardom. His narrative passions have intriguingly informed films ranging from the glam-rock flashback “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) to the Cate Blanchett-starring “Carol” (2015), from the experimental cult short “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" (1987) to the equally impressive Bob Dylan study “I’m Not There” (2007).
Apparently we can add environmental concerns to this preoccupational shortlist. Haynes took an allegory-freighted look at the subject in his early career effort “Safe” (1995), the strange portrait of a downward-spiraling housewife (Haynes troupe member Julianne Moore) afflicted by an unusual chemical sensitivity. Now he and Mark Ruffalo have teamed on the fact-based story of crusading attorney Rob Bilott, a onetime defense lawyer for chemical corporations who dramatically changed course, bringing a case against DuPont. The allegations: everything from water-supply contamination (shades of “A Civil Action”) to willfully ignoring consumer hazards in Teflon.
“Dark Waters” covers important territory, both in the health threats it probes and in its picture of the frighteningly unaccountable machinery of corporate America. It’s earnest and absorbing, with a performance from Ruffalo that’s at once low-key and heroic. (The way he juts his lip plays like a physical manifestation of his character’s bulldog nature.) It also feels nothing like a Todd Haynes film. The narrative approach is so rigorously straightforward and hits so many familiar notes — the strategically overwhelming mountain of motion-for-discovery documents! The parking-garage paranoia! — there’s little that’s distinctive about it, for all the talent involved.
We meet rising Cincinnati lawyer Bilott in 1998, when he receives a cold-call visit from a West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp, “The Kitchen”) insistent that a DuPont landfill is poisoning his cows. It’s hardly Bilott’s department — just the opposite — yet conscience compels him to drive out for a look. And he finds that he can’t look the other way, not after seeing the assortment of damning, gruesomely diseased animal organs that the angry working man has foil-wrapped in his freezer.
Bilott’s friendly phone calls to work contacts at DuPont soon give way to evasive maneuvering and ugly confrontation as the scope of the issue becomes clear, and the case gains traction. (The profane kiss-off Bilott receives from Victor Garber’s company bigwig is terrifically nasty.) Meanwhile, life at home and around the office also becomes something of a battle, as the David-and-Goliath lawsuit makes Bilott’s wife (oddly underutilized Anne Hathaway) and his boss (Tim Robbins) increasingly apprehensive.
Ultimately, they have Bilott’s back, and he, of course, has his clients’. We understand their dedication even without Robbins’s character proclaiming, “American business is better than this, gentlemen — and when it’s not, we should hold them to it!” The messages are too plainly stated for anything about “Dark Waters” to be murky.
Directed by Todd Haynes. Written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 126 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content, some disturbing images, strong language).