Involving and infuriating, this Mark Ruffalo-starring legal thriller is based on a compelling true story.
March 05, 2020
Charting a lawyer's quest to expose a chemical company's harmful actions, Dark Waters seems, on paper at least, like a standard crusading legal drama. In Erin Brockovich and The Insider's footsteps (and All the President's Men and The Report's, too), this little guy-versus-the system, truth-versus-cover-up film appears to follow. Based on grim recent history, it also seems worlds away from its director's usual oeuvre. For three decades, Todd Haynes has given cinema many gifts — the anarchic 70s glam of Velvet Goldmine, the sweeping 50s-style melodrama of Far From Heaven, the imaginative Bob Dylan-inspired I'm Not There and the yearning queer romance that is Carol — but never anything as ostensibly straightforward as this anxious, serious-minded procedural.
Dark Waters doesn't shy away from or try to reinvent its genre. Any move in that direction wouldn't do its real-life details justice. But this is definitely a Haynes movie in the way that matters most: its emotional impact. Visually, the director doesn't stage the elaborate, eye-catching scenes that his work has become known for. He doesn't load his frames with sentiment-dripping colour, either. His perceptive, detail-oriented approach is still evident, however, in every closed-in, grey-toned peek inside everyday corporate and small-town surroundings. So too is his ability to tell a complex tale with layered minutiae and piercing nuance, all while ensuring that his audience shares every iota of pain and passion felt by his characters.
With Haynes' eighth feature taking its specifics from Nathaniel Rich's 2016 New York Times Magazine article 'The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare', there's much for everyone — on-screen and off — to feel. When viewers first meet Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), he's a corporate defence lawyer who has just made partner at an Ohio law firm that works for the big end of town. If West Virginian farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) hadn't marched into the office demanding his help, that's the course Bilott's career probably would've stuck to. He's not just reluctant to listen to his unexpected visitor, but initially dismissive. It's only because Tennant knows Bilott's grandmother that he even gives the matter a second thought.
Whether exploring a woman's certainty that she's allergic to the world around her in 1995's Safe or chronicling two children's search for their parents across two different timelines in 2017's Wonderstruck, Haynes has always specialised in characters who are committed to following their hearts and senses of self, no matter the cost. When Bilott visits Tennant's property, learns that 190 cattle have died from strange medical conditions — including blackened teeth and tumours — and gleans the possible connection between this heartbreaking carnage and DuPont's use of neighbouring land as a dumping ground, he becomes one of them. Unsurprisingly, his employers aren't overly thrilled about the case, although his boss (Tim Robbins) still lets him pursue it. Of course, to just as little astonishment, the more that Bilott digs, the more he unearths.
Ruffalo has stepped into this kind of dogged, determined territory before in Zodiac and Spotlight — and, as both of those excellent films showed, he's exceptional at it. With each, he serves up different shades from a recognisable palette rather than replicating the same role again and again. Indeed, throw in his seven-movie Marvel stint as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, and the three-time Oscar nominee has spent a hefty chunk of his career as smart, resolute, world-weary but still tenacious men hunting insidious killers, organisations and other forces of evil. Make no mistake, that's the story that Dark Waters unfurls, even if it never has a finger-snapping Thanos to chase.
It would've been so easy to give DuPont a villainous on-screen figurehead, and to square the blame for the company's literally toxic actions at one person's feet. But Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (21 Bridges) know that life is never that simplistic. Obviously, bringing a huge multinational outfit peddling dangerous substances to account requires painstaking devotion, aka the type of unglamorous, highly necessary grunt work that Dark Waters focuses on. Perhaps not so obviously, enabling such a widespread catastrophe to take place — poisoning the environment, animals and people, and getting away with it until Bilott's lawsuit came along — requires just as much manpower, just from a completely different angle, which Dark Waters is equally as fervent about stressing.
While tight, taut and involving from start to finish, the end result doesn't hit every note it aims for. Anne Hathaway's role as Bilott's wife is underwritten, and Bill Pullman hams it up in his brief supporting appearance. Still, there's no shaking this solid, compelling film's potency, its scandalous true tale and its takeaway message. As Bilott discovers when he switches sides, many a powerful entity will only do the right thing when they're made to by the masses. With that in mind, Haynes hasn't just brought an essential story to the screen (and inspired his audience to start questioning all the chemicals in their lives), but crafted the ideal movie for a world where the entire planet is increasingly at the mercy of corporate giants.