‘Dark Waters’ plunges headlong into murky tale of corporate greed

Anchored by an impressive performance from Mark Ruffalo, what emerges is a portrait of a man who gave everything to help others, James Mottram writes

The film is shot in a blue-grey palette giving the film an aptly polluted, choked-up feel, throughout its running time. Focus Features
The film is shot in a blue-grey palette giving the film an aptly polluted, choked-up feel, throughout its running time. Focus Features

Ever since he burst on to the scene with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) and Poison (1991), Todd Haynes has remained one of the most considered and intelligent American filmmakers around. But while his dramas – films like Far From Heaven, Carol and the TV mini-series Mildred Pierce – have often been affairs of the heart, he’s never made anything like his latest effort, Dark Waters.

A true story based on a real-life legal case, this is the shocking tale of environmental pollution on a grand scale by chemical company DuPont. It’s the sort of campaigning tale that was popular in the 1970s, with films like Norma Rae or even The China Syndrome, but the last time Hollywood successfully managed such a movie was Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Erin Brockovich, almost two decades ago.

That film – also a true story – dealt with the contamination of groundwater in California by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Dark Waters tells a similar tale, beginning as a West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) confronts corporate defence lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) in his fancy Cincinnati office. Tennant’s cattle are dying, with horrible deformities – tumours, black teeth, even a hoof turned in on itself.

Tennant may be coarse but his suspicions are spot on: the nearby creek has been polluted by run-off from a landfill belonging to DuPont. He’s even got a box full of videotapes documenting his cows’ decline. After Bilott (who usually represents chemical companies) agrees to take on the case, he begins to meet resistance from DuPont’s top-level management. A report claims that Tennant’s herd died from poor nutrition and management; suspicions are soon aroused that this is not the case.

Inspired by the 2016 New York Times Magazine story The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, the script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa begins in 1998, shortly before Bilott becomes a partner at the law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister. He’s well respected by his colleagues, particularly his supervising partner Tom Terp (a well-cast Tim Robbins), but his investigations gradually cause unease.

Although Bilott is no conspiracy nut, he begins to look that way – particularly to his ever-so-patient wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway), a former lawyer herself who has given up work to look after their kids. “You’re acting like a crazy person,” she screams, when she finds him rooting through files at 2am. But only then does he reveal his findings: DuPont’s chemical dumps have not just been poisoning Tennant’s cattle, but the whole community.

Mark Ruffalo stars as "Robert Bilott" in director Todd Haynes' DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features
Mark Ruffalo stars as "Robert Bilott" in director Todd Haynes's 'Dark Waters'. Focus Features

Through painstaking research, Bilott uncovers reference to a chemical, PFOA – also known as C-8 – which he can find little information on. When DuPont begrudgingly sends over boxes and boxes of files, it’s the proverbial needle in a haystack that this increasingly obsessed lawyer is seeking. But eventually he makes the right connections: that these toxic chemicals were used in Teflon, the non-stick cookware surface, the sale of which is worth $1 billion a year.

What follows, as Haynes meticulously marks the passing of the years, is enough to make you cry, as DuPont puts up every legal barrier possible while residents, many of them seriously ill, attempt to bring the company to justice in the courts. “The system is rigged,” sighs Ruffalo’s legal eagle at one point, although his tireless efforts – spanning more than 17 years – show just how steadfastly he refuses to give in to such pessimism.

It’s a complex subject and Haynes doesn’t always keep the story afloat across its meaty two-hour running time. But anchored by an impressive Ruffalo, what emerges is a portrait of a man who gave everything to help others – at the expense of his health, his family life and his reputation. No question, there’s a real Atticus Finch quality to Robert Bilott, who – as the end credits tell us – is still fighting twenty years after first meeting Wilbur Tennant.

Of those who leave a distinct impression in the cast, Camp’s fire-in-his-belly farmer is unforgettable, as is Bill Pullman, as the lawyer who battles in court on behalf of the plaintiffs. Hathaway also turns what could easily have been a stay-at-home role into something more substantial; a woman who understands her husband’s need to fight but eventually cracks under the pressure.

Visually, Haynes’s regular cinematographer Ed Lachman brings a dour blue-grey palette to proceedings – lending the film an aptly polluted, choked-up feel, whether we’re in offices, courtrooms or rundown rural farms. There’s barely a moment of sunshine in the entire movie.

Like the recent Scott Burns CIA drama The Report, Haynes never goes for punch-the-air triumphalism here; he’s too canny an operator to deliver the Hollywood ending. But as the camera passes over the murky Ohio waters late on, we’re left with an angry distaste towards corporate greed and corruption. Here at least is a story where “the little guy” fights back.

Dark Waters is in cinemas across the UAE now

Published: December 7, 2019 02:16 PM


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