You know the genre: unlikely crusader takes on cynical suits and - at great risk to their career, friends, family and even life itself - develops a homespun strategy and achieves a world-changing victory. David Mamet and Sidney Lumet laid out the road map in 'The Verdict', with Paul Newman's alcoholic burnout rediscovering his fire as he argued a medical malpractice case. Steven Soderbergh's 'Erin Brockovich' added an empowerment arc for Julia Roberts's single-mom paralegal. 'Silkwood', 'Norma Rae', 'A Civil Action', 'The Report', 'Spotlight', 'The Post', 'Official Secrets' and countless others.
Based on a New York Times article titled 'The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare', Todd Haynes' latest film, 'Dark Waters' tells the story of Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, who played the man murdered by a multimillionaire Du Pont family heir in 'Foxcatcher'), an attorney at a large corporate firm in Cincinnati who takes on a dirt-poor West Virginia cattle farmer, Wilbur Tennant (an excellent and unrecognizable Bill Camp, 'Skin', 'Vice'), as a client. He soon discovers that the people in his hometown are becoming ill from mysterious causes that seem linked to the local DuPont Chemical plant.
Holding DuPont to account is a Herculean effort, but it's even harder when people are afraid to bite the hand that feeds them. The townspeople are pissed at any whistle-blowing because, from their viewpoint, the town wouldn't have had an economy without DuPont; and they weren't wrong about that fact, because DuPont designed it that way. Companies do that all the time, which is part of the message of the film - that large corporations can essentially own a whole town simply by employing most of the population and donating money for streets, schools, community centres, and other municipal needs. They make townspeople dependent on them. Just look at Australia and the fossil fuel industry.
Todd Haynes, the Oscar-nominated, endlessly lauded director of 'Velvet Goldmine', 'Far From Heaven', and 'Carol', is known for his pioneering queer cinema and idiosyncratic tales of love and fear. 'Dark Waters' is a straightforward legal thriller (a genre I really enjoy and I've been missing since its late-90s heyday). It doesn't seem like your typical Haynes film until you remember that he's also the man who made 'Safe' in 1995, one of the earliest and most disturbing movies about environmental illness - it's the one where Julianne Moore becomes convinced that Los Angeles itself is trying to kill her, to the bafflement of her doctors.
'Dark Waters' chronicles the 20-year long legal battle to hold the Dupont Corporation accountable for knowingly poisoning the town of Parkersburg, along with innumerable other communities and individuals. Haynes lets us connect the dots ourselves, acknowledging that Bilott lives in a world of lawyers - his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway, 'Colossal', underused) worked at his firm before he did - so there's no need for conversations where people explain their circumstances to one another.
The relative lack of exposition adds to the sense of futility, and the evidence we see is so damaging that we start to worry Bilott and his colleagues will contract something by their mere proximity to the case. Haynes orchestrates a moment of genuine terror in a file room, preying on that very idea as the lawyer is literally walled in by the boxes of discovery that he finally shakes loose from DuPont. Space is an important part of these kinds of movies, the sense of individuals alienated within corporate spaces, public spaces, domestic spaces. Cinematographer Ed Lachman uses a yellowish-green hue inside the law firm, hospital and homes, contrasting to the exterior coolness of weather and environment.
Haynes and writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan use creative license to lace the film with suspenseful elements that feel like they were pulled from the horror genre.
Haynes and writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan use creative license to lace the film with suspenseful elements that feel like they were pulled from the horror genre. There are jump-scares and paranoia. A sequence where Bilott makes the connection between the fluoride component of the mystery chemical he's studying, the black teeth from the cows and several people is nauseatingly effective. The filmmaker's willingness to show us the toll of DuPont's wrongdoing in the flesh and bones of its victims, rather than turn the camera away, gives this legal procedural an immediate, almost tactile quality.
Because that mystery chemical was never regulated, the Environmental Protection Agency was powerless; Bilott tried to hold DuPont to account while the company buried him in motions and filings, waiting for his plaintiffs to die. The script doesn't bother to underline the cynicism of DuPont's strategy. The company has deep pockets.
Mark Ruffalo (who optioned the New York Times story for the screen and brought it to Haynes's attention) has enough charisma to carry the audience's attention through this complex plot. He shines as the subtle and quiet warrior of truth - I could have watched 90 minutes of him highlighting data, asking questions, making photocopies and submitting injunctions.
Tim Robbins ('Marjorie Prime') also impresses as Tom Terp, the surprisingly supportive corporate attorney running the firm where Bilott works, despite only having one real scene - a boardroom meeting where he passionately convinces the other partners to tackle this case. It was refreshing that Bilott's employer stood by him the whole time (aside from a pay cut), avoiding the cliché of throwing our hero under the bus to protect the firm's big corporate clients.
But, like 'The Report' and 'Spotlight', this is not an actor's movie. It's a fascinating story well-told. And credit for that success goes to Haynes. In recounting two decades of tricky legal manoeuvring, he maintains a momentum to his storytelling. 'Dark Waters' presents interconnected lives that are being played out over time rather than as a series of staged scenes. We follow the characters as their lives ebb, flow and end as lives do. That the host of supporting and otherwise "minor" characters in this film are portrayed as real people and not as caricatures is a big help.
There's supposed to be something reassuring about the David-and-Goliath legal procedural, but Haynes' film doesn't have any illusions about heroism; the hopelessness of fighting a giant corporation, even one that's demonstrably harming the people it's claiming to help, is made very clear. This film is not about taking sides; it's not about rooting for the underdog; it's not a movie you munch popcorn to and walk out of with a sense of righteous fulfilment.
After watching 'Dark Waters', you'll leave the cinema enraged by the display of economic cruelty from a monolithic corporation and its evil and very rich henchmen.