Chronicling a legal case against the DuPont chemical company, Todd Haynes’ latest feature shows skill in telling a story over many years. Not only does the film act as another damning indictment of corporate America’s indifference, but it also highlights the cost of shooting the proverbial messenger.
Mark Ruffalo leads the cast as Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer based in Cincinnati. A farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), from his grandmother’s home of Parkersburg, West Virginia tracks him down, convinced DuPont’s disposal of hazardous chemical waste is to blame for the death of his cattle herd. Initially reluctant to turn the tables and go to bat for the community, Rob eventually takes the case – all the burdens and challenges from then on – oblivious to strain it will cause him, his family, and his career.
Ruffalo’s performance feels similar to his role in SPOTLIGHT, albeit there is a character wrestling with, perhaps, his guilt at being a cog in a machine that has defended such institutionalised abdication of responsibility. Therefore, one might expect this may be the unique angle in the film’s story construction. Otherwise a new entry in the subgenre of legal dramas persistent everyday folk (ERIN BROCKOVICH, another dramatisation of real events, has obvious overlaps in plot elements). However, DARK WATERS – while unflinching in skewering DuPont – still gently questions the impatient myopia of the plaintiffs and even Rob’s own choices in sinking so much time and emotional energy into the case, in addition to calling out the materialistic toadying that allows such corporate malfeasance.
On numerous occasions, those affected by the DuPont scandal lash out at Rob – a lightning rod for their frustrations at delays and obfuscations in the ongoing legal case. Refreshingly, although the film presents Rob’s actions as a noble crusade, the film roundly rejects the cliched story of the all-conquering American hero. Anne Hathaway plays Rob’s wife, Sarah, who clashes with him over his dedication to the case, ably showing the strain they are causing. Ruffalo shows subtlety in his role; rarely has the David v Goliath story illustrated such a muted and quietly determined little guy. Rob still has the trailer-ready rants of indignation one might expect, but his most powerful moments are the quiet matter-of-fact ones. His calm silence as his fellow partners at the law firm become increasingly exasperated at his desire not just to reject the corporate elite but to go for their jugular is a satisfying reversal of the normal delivery of impassioned speeches.
Throughout, although the film seems different from much of Todd Haynes’ recent work, and it is undoubtedly less distinctive, the film’s stretching timeline requires delicate handling of pace and characters. A slightly less authorial involvement does not equate to a less demanding task in guiding the film’s tone. Additionally, the somewhat sickly colour grading of the scenes that put the effects of DuPont’s activities into stark clarity is a simple but effective way of evoking the queasiness that will persist as the credits roll.
The film still manages, somehow, to squeeze in a couple of strange diversions. Rob’s worry in one scene over being car-bombed seems oddly out of place, as does a helicopter engaging in (what must be presumed to be) corporate intimidation over Wilbur’s farm. These odd diversions feel like attempts to bolt on adrenaline-pumping moments to what could have been a relatively prosaic legal drama. However, given the film is more interesting than the subgenre tropes would imply these feel out of place with the stoic determination exhibited elsewhere.
Despite the real-life resolution to the case, DARK WATERS is not a triumphalist film and goes to great lengths to show its story is merely a battle in an overwhelming war.