Dark Waters is a depressing, murky thriller directed by Todd Haynes and co-produced by star Mark Ruffalo. It depicts the true decades-long legal battle of chemical defense attorney Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) scouring to expose dirty secrets about Teflon — a poisonous man-made substance filtered into household products, air, and water — from billion-dollar corporation DuPont.
The battle, as I understand it, rages on as DuPont has since retracted any evidence the dogged Bilott has collected. Bilot himself supports Ruffalo’s film and has promoted it on all forms of web and television. That’s a good thing because we need more awareness to the dangers of globalization, even if Dark Waters functions more as Ruffalo’s decadent PSA than it does an original thriller.
Not long into the film we understand where it’s going. Small-time lawyer Bilott wants to be a company man and sharpen his chops at a big-time law firm with wealthy men. But when a ghost from his past named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) insists poison soil is killing his cattle in West Virginia, the lowly lawyer returns to his hometown to address its unheard victims.
These people are tools of corporate greed. Will shows him boxfuls of tapes collected over the years of imploded cows, dogs, and other West Virginian animals subject to the dumping of DuPont’s chemicals. Later, after Bilott probes DuPont executive Phil Donnelly played by Victor Garber, Donnelly forfeits literally every single record of the company’s chemical history into his office. Soon Bilott makes discoveries between the warped animals and a series of DuPont employees exposed to a lethal chemical known as PFO, essentially a condensed version of the WWII chemical Teflon used to garnish the paint on military tanks, and later to adorn sauce pans and shit.
And so unravels this year’s iteration of All the President’s Men with a strong if not insistent performance by Ruffalo. Bilott functions as a modern-day Mr. Smith. He speaks for the lower-middle class working men of America that DuPont uses as statistics and receptors. In many scenes, Bilott loses sleep, squints over fine print under impractically low-lit libraries, chases big evil men in fancy suits and bad tempers, and sprints through sinister parking garages crawling with DuPont thugs.
Bilott never knows the reach of DuPont’s power and the extent to which his investigation will make a difference. He bemoans these fears to his tired wife Sarah played by Anne Hathaway (who never seems to age in the film), as she clutches their parade of babies he’s too busy to raise.
Bilott also seeks counsel from Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), his boss at the law firm. Terp, uptight and efficient, reminded me of Claude Rains’s character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as much as Ruffalo’s reminded me of Jimmy Stewart’s. Their great similarity is that mop of white long hair, although like Sarah, Terp never seems to age either.
Haynes, a very talented filmmaker, clouds this world with endless snowfall and a deeply cold color palette. For added suspense, there’s some inspired zoom shots achieved with telephoto lenses that flatten everything. I was reminded of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation at times in that things are never what they seem in a place where man is very small.
I was also reminded of Dr. Strangelove when Bill Pullman struts onscreen for a whopping ten minutes to perform his best George C. Scott impersonation.
If I seem a sarcastic, that’s because I’m a little bemused. Dark Waters is a fine film, well directed and well-acted. It’s about an important cause that deserves to be seen and is probably affecting all of us adversely. But in many ways it’s an easy film, one I’ve seen many times before.
Spotlight, another legal thriller from 2015, investigated similar territory in a similarly safe way, as did The Post in 2017. I don’t know what it would take to enhance the drama in Dark Waters. It isn’t ever boring but it’s never truly exhilarating. I felt after the two hours and six minutes that I had been lectured to, or briefed through a two-hour climate change seminar.
I don’t doubt that there’s evil corporations poisoning worldwide systems but I can’t ignore the very obvious elements of this film that Hollywood clearly heightened to summarize everything into a cat and mouse, David and Goliath game.