The pensive legal drama was once a Hollywood standby, reliably delivering courtroom tension, grandstanding performances, and a satisfying assurance of justice that was only enhanced when the story behind the script turned out to be true. Many of those legal dramas often lionized those who rise above the allure of cynicism and greed. Sometimes it’s the victims of grand social injustice or the lawyers who help ensure their chance at public retribution. Either way, in almost every case the ethics of heroism wins the day because justice finally becomes tangible. Director Todd Haynes understands that the justice system hardly ever works in such cut and dry terms. Pompous jargon and endless procedural bureacucracy often make the judicial process intimidating and isolating for the very citizens it’s supposed to help. With Dark Waters, the rare biopic that refuses to embrace climactic closure, Haynes avoids the sentimental and rousing conventions that one would associate with courtroom epics. Instead, he presents a decade-spanning marathon of civic awakenings and endurance, one founded on endless hard work and sacrifice. Instead of depicting some disingenuous sprint toward good-natured epiphany, Dark Waters is all about the long game, surveying the collective consequences experienced by participants of a class action juggernaut. Moments of personal doubt and exhaustion are more prevalent here than the showy courtroom grandstanding.
In the film’s opening, during a series of slow lateral tracking shots, Haynes introduces what will become a methodical cinematic aesthetic designed to match the work ethic of corporate defense Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a Cincinnati attorney for Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a firm that represents major corporations, including DuPont, one of the world’s most powerful chemical manufacturers. Through personal ties, and against the wishes of his own colleagues, Bilott decides to help a lowly cattle farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia named Wilbur Tennant (a burley Bill Camp). Wilbur’s cows have been getting sick, going mad, and dying off at an alarming rate, and he’s convinced it’s because DuPont has poisoned the nearby water supply. And of course, he’s right, but proving it won’t be easy, nor will establishing a way that might make DuPont liable for cleanup and compensations. And what follows from there is a detective story with a nice guy lawyer at its center. Bilott is convincingly brought to life by Ruffalo, as a indomitable and polite man with a frown seemingly engraved across his face. Haynes often uses wide two-shots to emphasize Ruffalo’s modest height compared to looming costars like Tim Robbins, who plays Bilott’s boss Tom Terp. While the actor uses his turtle-in-a-shell body language to further emphasize that this smart, ethical man is financially, politically even scientifically outgunned.
Audience members who keep up with environmental news will likely know that Tennant’s plight is a gateway to a wider discussion of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a byproduct of one of DuPont’s most lucrative products, Teflon. This in turn leads to wider and more alarming look at toxic chemicals that are spread through the water supply, enter human bodies, and stay there. And as you might expect those chemicals cause illnesses, but those illnesses are more commonplace (mostly cancers and birth defects), but the mundanity becomes similarly frightening. Haynes takes the dull details of American existence — bathing, cooking, drinking water — and weaponizes them in ways to practically turn Dark Waters into a horror film.
Written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (and based off a 2016 New York Times article), Dark Waters remains fastened to certain narrative linearity that does feel familiar. But Haynes subverts things by slowing down the momentum of Bilott’s arc. There’s nothing flashy or showy about the inception of his relationship with Tennant’s case, or his gradual realization that DuPont has committed egregious crimes for decades. Haynes instead fixates on Bilott’s personal struggle to endure the endless delays and professional pushback that comes with formally challenging a company like DuPont. His close proximity to a firm that usually defends companies like DuPont, only amplifies the tension even further. On the lesser convincing side are the domestic scenes between Bilott and his wife Sara (a solid Anne Hathaway). Her character in general is a very mixed bag; While her character is given an admirable dimension that reflects her status as a lawyer who gave up her job to be a stay-at-home mom, she also at one point announces that she’s not just The Wife in a heroic man’s story. (To be fair, its kind of hard to say how the latter could’ve been remedied; Bilott is our guide through the story as well as the audience’s mirror.) It’s just that the familial strife of it all often feels not entirely fleshed out.
But Dark Waters still remains a strong and involving, though understated, example of a dying breed of film, resonating with present-day feelings of hopelessness with the bold corruption on display every day in the United States, and throughout the world. Haynes, known as one of American independent cinema’s most vibrant and challenging directors, might not initially seem like the kind of director you’d expect to see attached to this sort of project (many of his past works are period pieces about life on the margins of American society, filled with lush costumes and camera aesthetics). But here he, along with his cinematographer Ed Lachman, bring a stranglehold over each precise shot and movement of the camera. (They often start a scene in darkness or have an element out-of-focus, and gradually bring them to the clear as the scene progresses, displaying how Bilott himself is slowly coming into the light with his new findings.) Together their dreary, cool visuals only define the bleak horror of it all even more.
For all its patience and droll humor, Dark Waters is an angry movie, and rightly so. Maybe the movie’s biggest triumph is Haynes’ skillful portrayal of how a monolith of American capitalism can plow through human lives with near impunity. The people working at DuPont are corporate cogs, almost insufficiently evil compared with the damage they’re indirectly wreaking. Dark Waters is about how companies can function in a manner that’s both criminal and incidental, causing people to suffer through the water they drink and the air they breathe. Such dangers are chillingly ordinary, and as this movie makes clear, they’re not going away anytime soon. Dark Waters, in the end, is wholeheartedly a horror film; a demanding, involving and devastatingly bleak portrait of solitary dedication to a never-ending fight against impossible odds.
Dark Waters releases in theaters nationwide (in the U.S.) on December 6