Dark Waters, 2019.
Directed by Todd Haynes.
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause, Brian Gallagher, Bruce Cromer, and Bill Pullman.
A Cincinnati attorney takes on an environmental lawsuit against a large chemical company to expose a decades-long cover-up.
The waters get muddied in more ways than one in director Todd Haynes’s latest film—a gripping real-life exposé of a chemical industry behemoth by a Cincinnati-based corporate defence lawyer who uncovers evidence that they knowingly poisoned thousands of small-town residents for over half a century. In what might otherwise have been a conventional David-vs-Goliath story, Dark Waters—based on a 2016 New York Times article—instead becomes a compelling, complex morality tale that trades basking in triumphant victory for wading along the murky shores of slow burning melancholia.
In a thirty-year career as a provocative, progressive auteur, Dark Waters is perhaps Haynes’s most straightforward film to date. Events are told with regimented chronology and, with the exception of a few cinematic embellishments, embedded firmly in the facts. Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 biographical drama Erin Brockovich might be the most obvious comparison, but, from its outset, Dark Waters trudges through much gloomier territory: an angry outcry that never compromises on the story it wishes to tell.
In an opening that invokes the conventions of classic horror, a group of alcohol-fuelled teens go skinny dipping late at night in a lake that sits in the shadow of an ominous-looking chemical plant. They are quickly shooed away by workers on a boat spraying a mysterious liquid on the water’s surface. It’s a telling prelude, one that firmly establishes screenwriter Mario Correa’s story as a cautionary tale of humans and monsters. In this case, the monster isn’t some ghoulish bogeyman or a sinister spectre, but chemical industry giant DuPont, a company with wealth in abundance and blood on their hands. For years, they knowingly deposited harmful substances into the rivers and creeks around the rural town of Parkersburg, West Virginia—water drank by livestock and locals alike.
Corporate defence attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo disappearing into the kind of compassionate, well-intentioned Everyman few actors beyond Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart could convincingly portray) is visited at his Ohio law firm by Parkersburg farmer and resident Wilbur Tennant (a memorably gruff turn from character actor Bill Camp). Armed with a box of VHS tapes containing graphic footage of his deformed, deceased cattle, an aggrieved Tennant requests Bilott represent him in a lawsuit against DuPont, convinced conspiracy is afoot. Initially reluctant—DuPont being an important client of his employers—Bilott, who has a personal connection to Parkersburg, eventually takes on the case and unearths the shocking truth buried in decades’ worth of documents.
What follows is a long, gruelling legal battle that sees Bilott and co. pegged back time and again as DuPont continue to evade retribution by exploiting legal loophole after legal loophole. Small wins crop up along the way, but any success quickly proves hollow as the victims of DuPont’s irresponsible ways grow sicker and the health and home life of Bilott starts to crumble under the weight of such a demanding case.
But as the film’s pace begins to slow and a narrative repetitiveness starts to creep in (entirely by design, of course), Dark Waters becomes less concerned with condemning the US judiciary system’s numerous shortcomings as it does with showing the long-term cost of corporate negligence on the innocent. Moral conundrum and damning irony flood the narrative, but even with heightened emotional stakes, Haynes’s film remains distinctly absent of contrived sentimentality. Instead, against the backdrop of Edward Lachman’s sombre, wintery cinematography—one in stark contrast to the alluring vibrancy of a film like Carol—Dark Waters remains visually and tonally bleak.
And it’s this relentless sense of dread that propels this legal thriller to become the captivating watch it proves to be. It might be straightforwardly structured, but very few things about this riveting account prove to be quite as simple. “You did a good thing here” a scientist tells Bilott as Haynes’s film reaches its final third. At that point, it feels like something of an empty statement. Good things, it seems, often come at a cost. But, in the struggle for justice, that’s no less reason to fight until the very end for what is right.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.