It seems odd at first that Todd Haynes, the artful creator of such classic queer cinema as Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine and Carol, would be drawn to such a just-the-facts legal barnburner like Dark Waters. But the filmmaker approaches the whistleblower genre, solidly repped by such films as Erin Brockovich and The Insider, and applies his usual keen eye for how injustice eats away at character. Plus he’s got Mark Ruffalo, an actor of seemingly limitless range — who else could board the Marvel train as the Hulk and plumb the dramatic depths of Foxcatcher and Spotlight with the same fierce commitment?
Ruffalo brings a growing sense of moral outrage to the role of Rob Bilott, a real-life Cincinnati lawyer and corporate mouthpiece. Bilott specializes in defending chemical companies (Dupont is a client). He’s the least likely attorney, in other words, to sign on when a potential client crashes into his fancy office and threatens his bread and butter by asking him to play David to Dupont’s Goliath. That client is Wilbur Tennant (the ever-brilliant Bill Camp), a West Virginia farmer who accuses the company of killing his cattle by dumping chemical waste into Dry Run Creek where they drink. So this advocate for corporate America makes a visit to the farm to see for himself. He’s shocked, as are we, by the graphic evidence. And suddenly the case jumps out of the dry legal briefs Billot is accustomed to shuffling and becomes personal.
A crusader is born. But at what cost? The support offered by his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) grows tentative. The firm’s boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), encourages Billot’s investigation, but other partners are threatened by his obsession to bite the hand that feeds them. And Dupont’s chief executive (Victor Garber) is quickly running out of patience. What makes the lawyer persist at the cost of maybe losing his job and neglecting his wife and children? Two questions nag at him: If the poisoned water is killing cattle, what is it doing to humans? And how long has the chemical company knowingly been turning a blind eye to its willful destruction?
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Dark Waters is a generic title for a movie that is anything but the same old legal thriller. The screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan is based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine story “The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare.” And while the film compresses time — getting the case together took decades — there is no massaging of facts to make for a manageable running time or a more digestible entertainment.
What makes it a Haynes film, besides the evocative camera genius of Haynes regular Ed Lachman, is something intangible and mysterious. The director’s admirers will think immediately of Safe, the 1995 indie classic starring Julianne Moore as a wife and mother who thinks she’s being poisoned by something unidentifiable in the environment. That feeling of dread pervades throughout, and deepens the film’s scarily timely themes beyond the usual demands of docudrama. In the Trump era, when the reigns on corporate malfeasance have been loosened in the name of profit, we’re all anxious about the next assault on our vulnerable climate. Billot took action to stop it. What do we do?