“The system is rigged,” corporate defense attorney turned protector of the people, Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) vents angrily to his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) in a Benihana’s parking lot, fourteen painstaking years of legal warfare against one of the largest chemical conglomerates on the planet propelling his rage. Bilott is the real-world hero of Todd Haynes’ new environmental justice film “Dark Waters,” a Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa adaptation of the 2016 New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” It begins as a slow-burn procedural and morphs exponentially into an eco-political thriller, that’s earnest, sometimes a little hokey, but always engaging.
Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a Parkersburg, West Virginia farmer with a high school education, finds Bilott at his Cincinnati, Ohio firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, and begs him to take his case because no one else will. Bilott, slightly sympathetic due to his West Virginia roots, begrudgingly agrees to help as little as possible, informing Tennant that he’s employed to do the opposite of what he’s asking him to do. But after he visits Tennant’s farm and witnesses the damning evidence—a deadened pasture, a graveyard of livestock, along with Tennant’s collection of their blackened teeth and inflamed organs— Bilott feels compelled to take the case.
At first, he’s treading lightly, trying not to upset the order of his law firm, but it isn’t long before he’s in a bitter grudge match with DuPont—a chemical company whose lawyers and executives he used to work alongside quite often—over their unethical use and waste disposal of an unregulated chemical called PFOA (most popularly associated with Teflon), or C8, which Bilott and Tennant believe is poisoning the drinking water of over 100,000 people in and around the Parkersburg area. Given the scale of the lawsuit and the inclinations of his firm, many of Bilott’s co-partners aren’t happy about him filing the suit. But he’s got the support of senior leadership Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), which allows him to dive headfirst into battle.
For anyone familiar with the depth of institutional corruption in the U.S., “Dark Waters” is a bitter pill of affirmation. For those unaware, or those who choose blissful ignorance, it will be much harder to swallow, as it was (and is) for so many working-class Parkersburg residents employed by DuPont, the largest employer in the town. Haynes—a passionate, lifelong devotee of environmental justice and institutional transparency, as first seen through “Safe“—does a terrific job conveying the depression and hopelessness that comes with taking on sick, greedy, inhumane, Earth-devouring institutions and all of the semantic legal loopholes they can afford in their incomprehensible wealth and power.
Camp gives the performance of the film. Rocking some thick Beau Bridges brows, he’s blue-collar to the max and fueled with righteous anger—spitting and spurting through his heavy Appalachian growl, which resembles tumbling stones more than human vocal cords. The rest of the supporting cast isn’t terribly fleshed out. They’re more like caricatures of wives, country folk, lawyers, and executives. Fortunately, Ed Lachman’s stunning cinematography—reminiscent of the darkened Gordon Willis work from Alan J. Pakula and ’70s thrillers—distracts from the underwhelming supporting cast most of the time.
In his second DuPont-focused film in five years, Ruffalo gives a sturdy, thorough, and sincere performance, piggybacking off the tirelessly investigative nature of his role as Mike Rezendes in “Spotlight.” He seems timid at first—soft-spoken, unlawyerly, very Midwestern. That is, until he confronts DuPont bigwig Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) at a black-tie ceremony with all the fire of a Balrog rumbling in his gut. He might have dopey body language, but he’s not meek. On the contrary, he’s fierce, tenacious, and unrelenting in his practice, exercising research with surgical precision in the pursuit of justice.
Ruffalo channels as much head-in-hands file-scouring as Adam Driver in “The Report,” another 2019 film that spends the majority of its runtime rustling through documents in order to unveil institutional corruption. Both films are revelatory in their portrayal of how long it takes and how arduous it is to uncover ugly truths on a foundational scale, to contest debauched, reprobate powers that be, especially those who pose as the opposite. “They want people to know it’s not worth fighting,” Bilott cries in a moment of defeat, Haynes’ warning that unethical power will always inspire surrender coming through as clear as a crystal moon.
Bilott is good at asking poignant questions and even better at following them until he finds answers, no matter how deep they might be buried among some hundreds of dense boxes of corporate files. “What if self-regulation doesn’t work?” might seem like a question that was answered by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring“in the ’60s, but the fact that it wasn’t addressed on a scale as expansive as Tennant’s case until the ’90s shows how uneducated the average American is on corrupt conglomerates that hide themselves behind technologically progressive masks (the DuPont—who’s since merged with DOW Chemical to form a superpower conglomerate—homepage in 2019 reads: “Why wait for a better future? Let’s invent a better now”).
Haynes hones in on the complexity of tackling such institutional injustice, despite how evident it might be. In regard to Tennant’s case, uneducated locals refuse to accept the facts and hatred toward the Tennant family and others brews as a result of the potential economic blow the removal of DuPont would have on the community. In other words, the victims unknowingly oppose their own liberation. For Bilott, chasing the case often means the neglect of his family, which takes a mental and emotional toll on him, his wife, and their three children. And because it takes over a decade and a half to make any real progress, his clients are often furious with him, their understanding of the muddy legal system wildly misplaced at the expense of Bilott.
Not to mention, the professional and communal relationship between science, law, and Earth-mining conglomerates is dirty and incestual, nearly impossible to penetrate with virtue. Haynes knows all of this as well as anyone. He doesn’t make integrity look easy. But, knowing many viewers might be hearing these truths for the first time, he holds the viewer’s hand through the serried jargon of the case’s intricacies to ensure everyone understands what happened as clearly as possible. This has its drawbacks, “Dark Waters” can be dry and slow at times and a little Kumbaya-y in its self-righteous ideas of toppling the man, but ultimately, Haynes reserved, unshowy and heartfelt approach wins out in the end.
In the final moments, Haynes offers a glimpse of hope, but, ultimately, objective truths like these are soul-sucking and painful to endure, albeit supremely important if we want to combat institutional corruption. But that means “Dark Waters” is an unlikely commercial success. Perhaps if audiences saw it in a theatre, they’d stick around to finish what they paid for. But it’ll be much too easy to bail on what is a very slow-building first 30 minutes for those watching on a streaming service in the near future. If they make it an hour in, they’ll be pleased to know that John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is prominently featured, as any West Virginia film seems obligated to boast. But outside of that, the lack of respite is rightly suffocating and will be unfortunately repelling for those who approach film as a mindless escape. [B]