Although the late fall is certainly known for being the place where hard-hitting dramas, ripe for awards consideration, often land, I don’t think I was quite prepared for just how much of a poignant gut punch of a film Dark Waters, the latest from Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol), truly is. In the true-life story of Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defense attorney specializing in chemical company litigation, he decides to help out a farmer friend (the fantastic Bill Camp) of his grandmother. The farmer’s land, livestock, and family have been ravaged by the pollution from a DuPont chemical plant that leaked run-off into the water supply and, it turns out, has a long history of such pollution.
Although DuPont attempts to overwhelm Bilott with hundreds of boxes of discovery files and an army of attorneys, these roadblocks only seem to stoke the fires of his outrage. He risks his own career and the well being of his family (including wife Sarah, played by Anne Hathaway) to uncover the truth. Bilott’s lawsuit and investigation link the company to a great number of deaths, diseases and birth defects in humans and animals alike in an entire community, members of which are still quite loyal to DuPont.
Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich (called “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”), Dark Waters may seem like a David and Goliath story that we’ve seen in other “cause” film since the 1970s, but Haynes takes a slightly different approach by never letting us forget that this lawsuit was about hard-working people. This doesn’t feel like a star vehicle for Ruffalo, who looks like a nerdy schlub for most of the film. Instead, the film always goes back to Camp’s farmer character, Wilbur Tennant, as well as the countless other people who join the suit over the years.
The film also does a compelling job illustrating just how draining and all-consuming Bilott’s struggle was. It takes a toll on his health, his relationships, his salary, his sanity, and his time (the scope of the film is about 20 years). The role gives Ruffalo the chance to really throw himself into the work, reminding us of the kind of acting he was capable of before the Hulk took over his life (that’s not a knock at his Marvel work, but this is clearly something different). Equally chilling is the way Dark Waters shows how powerful corporations maneuver their way into smaller towns with money, jobs and influence, and so completely take over that to have them leave town or cut back in any way would destroy an entire community. This cycle breeds towns full of defenders of the very companies that might also be killing them.
There is some great supporting work from the likes of Victor Garber (as DuPont’s charming but slick lead attorney), Mare Winningham (as one of the later clients), Bill Pullman (as a local attorney helping Bilott sue DuPont), and Tim Robbins as Bilott’s beyond-patient boss at the firm who is losing a lot of money working these cases pro bono, but also losing chemical company business because of the DuPont suit. There are times when the film feels a bit too detail-oriented, and sometimes we get lost in an endless number of names on both sides of the case. But Haynes and company allow the audience space to get most of the details straight in our heads and keep things from getting too confusing or overwhelming.
Dark Waters is the type of worthy activist filmmaking that feels like a committed passion project that actually works on both an emotional level and one that will make viewers angry beyond words. The last few title cards about the true scope of the damage done by DuPont are extraordinary and horrifying, and make the rest of the film feel entirely justified and quite necessary as a piece of filmmaking and a way to make a complicated situation all too clear. It might not be ideal holiday or family viewing, but if you want to be shaken to your core and give your brain something to ponder, perhaps for the rest of your life, Dark Waters is ideal.
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