2019, PG-13, 126 min. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, Bill Pullman, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 29, 2019
A dour courtroom procedural about a slow-moving environmental disaster may not seem like the most obvious project for Todd Haynes. After all, his name is most synonymous with stylish and captivating tales of queer, often closeted Americana, not a frumpy lawyer going through boxes and boxes of old company records. Yet Dark Waters really makes absolute sense. Haynes looks for the poison in the heartland, whether it be homophobia, racism, or domestic violence. In this case, much as in his eco-paranoia meltdown masterpiece, Safe, it's literal poison.
In 1998, a West Virginia cattle farmer called Wilbur Tennant walked into the offices of an expensive law firm, and demanded to talk to one specific lawyer called Robert Bilott. It turned out that Bilott's grandmother knew the Tennants, and she told them to go see her little Bobby. So Tennant did, dressed in his best farm gear, with an Appalachian accent you'd need a sharp axe to cut, and told Bilott a horrific story. His cows were dying, poisoned by the runoff water from a nearby dump run by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Almost against his better judgment, Bilott ended up taking the case, and ended up revealing a decades-old conspiracy that has quite possibly poisoned every living creature on Earth.
Here's the kicker: It's all true.
It's a rare film that not only makes you feel sorry for corporate lawyers, but even has you rooting for them, yet Dark Waters pulls off that miracle. Mario Correa has adapted the script from Nathaniel Rich's 2016 New York Times story, "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare," recounting how Bilott – a freshly minted partner at the prestigious petrochemical-specialist law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister – took the company to war with DuPont, one of America's most powerful chemical companies.
As played by Mark Ruffalo, Bilott isn't some two-fisted fighter for justice. He's a proceduralist, the small-town outsider at his company, and it would have been easy – nay, trite – to paint him as alone against the world. And while Ruffalo – short, schlubby, seemingly compressed from without and constrained from within – makes Bilott into the perfect unlikely hero, Haynes also deftly balances a remarkable supporting cast that could have been cardboard ciphers. Hathaway could have been the stereotypical supportive wife, but she brings nuance to the part of Sarah, who stepped back from her own legal career to watch Rob seemingly send his careening off into oblivion. Robbins could have been the archetypical stern boss who is eventually won around, but his interpretation of Bilott's supervisor, Tom Terp, is fueled by a sense of right and wrong – indeed, he delivers one of the film's most rousing and impassioned speeches as he explains the moral and legal imperative for the fight. But it is character actor Bill Camp who represents the most extraordinary switch for Haynes as a filmmaker. If you've ever seen a farmer losing everything, it's a particular kind of grief, and Camp channels that into a muddy, sweaty desperation that is harrowing.
Initially, Correa's script feels like it loses focus in the third act: But that's one of the bravest decisions of the entire film. This is the transition from Bilott's search for answers – the script's evidentiary phase – into filings, and a descent into the legal quagmire as DuPont lawyered up, and the system went into full slow-grind mode. It's messy and confusing, a push and pull that helps the audience really empathize with Bilott's rising frustration and despair. It also grasps that there is no winning here: The ground is poisoned, the community is forever divided (nothing like suing the only big employer to make the church potluck awkward), and no amount of damages will heal destruction at a genetic level.
What may be most depressing is how much worse the political context has become since Bilott began his decades-long crusade. The EPA has been defanged, and the courts are increasingly packed with business cronies. The system seems more rigged than ever. As Ruffalo half-cries in what should be his inevitable Oscar nomination clip, the system won't protect us. We protect us. So maybe the real heroes will always be the Bilotts, the slow and steady people of conviction.