Synopsis – A corporate defense attorney takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.
My Take – It seems like a while since we had a truly effective legal thriller. Filled with extreme courtroom tension, grandstanding performances, and a satisfying assurance of justice. Even rarer have become films which take on big corporations who have destroyed a large number of lives.
Thankfully, with director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) helming such a tale, results were always going to be intriguing. Who here through this film sets out an example on why a giant corporate can never be trusted, no matter how many times they toss an oversized check at a charity, or promote the word family in their advertisements. In the case of this film, the company is DuPont who continued to use toxic chemicals for decades even after learning that they continue to cause fatal diseases.
Although, there’s nothing here that you have not seen, with comparison to ‘Erin Brockovich’ inevitable, nevertheless, director Todd Haynes still makes the film entirely engaging and provides a sense of crushing dread, the kind of unsolvable paranoia these procedure bound films usually work to counter.
The acting and multiple aspects also really do the film justice and give everyone the chance to act to their top game, and while message based films about environmental issues often have a reputation of being too heavy-handed, director Haynes lets the subject unravels itself in a sophisticated and engrossing way that never feels too preachy.
Beginning in 1998, the story follows Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer who has just been promoted to partner at the Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm and lives a good life with Sarah (Anne Hathaway), his glamorous, ambitious wife and a new baby in Cincinnati, Ohio. That is until, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a disgruntled farmer and a friend of his grandmother drops in his city office seeking his help to take on DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical corporations.
Even though, Bilott usually defends big chemical corporations rather than sues them, upon reluctant support from his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), decides to take it up as a small challenge, only to end up horrified to find that run-off from a DuPont chemical dumping ground has poisoned the farmer’s cows. As he begins to dig deeper, Bilott discovers that the chemical giant has been acting appallingly throughout the process, has been knowingly poisoning the town’s water supply and has been responsible for birth defects and cancer in its residents.
When Bilott starts digging deeper, director Haynes leans into the bleakness of the investigations. Bilott pokes around in towns that are either beholden to DuPont or have been forgotten by the company; back in the halls of power, he buttonholes DuPont executives like Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), trying to get answers using his legal clout. With the case dragging on for years, director Haynes starts to pile on the fear and mistrust, showing how DuPont tries to flood Bilott with data to keep him far from the truth.
Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich called “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, the film may seem like a David and Goliath story that we’ve seen in other cause film since the 1970s, but director Haynes takes a slightly different approach by never letting us forget that this lawsuit was about hard-working people. While there has been a substantial amount of coverage of the environmental issues and concerns regarding dangerous chemicals and high levels of fluorides in the water, this film hopes to remind audiences with its moralizing reflections on the threats and dangers of water contamination.
The film also successfully shatters the myth that big industrial corporations care about their workers or their consumers, they are simply out to make as much profit as possible, and if people die as a result of that, they do not care.
Yes, there is nothing crowd-pleasing about the film, and it avoids being a manipulative Oscar bait film. It’s tough to make a several-year span lawyerly-driven film ultra-exciting, there is no speechifying about the little guy, no sentimental trappings and director Haynes even stages the scenes with minimal flash and pizzazz, but the film provides enough visual stimuli to move the story forward.
But what is commendable here is how director Haynes and his team avoid trite clichés that often plague this genre, the sense Bilott isn’t some warrior for justice; he is a man that is more interested in the procedures of evidence and facts, and you feel his solitude in his battle against DuPont.
However, where director Haynes excels most is in his teasing out the personal and professional connections that mingle throughout. The film also does a compelling job illustrating just how draining and all-consuming Bilott’s struggle was. It takes a toll on his health, his relationships, his salary, his sanity, and his time.
But the film’s biggest triumph is director Haynes’s 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 are indirectly causing. The film 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 film makes clear, they’re not going away anytime soon.
Yes, the film has its share of narrative problems, as the script, by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, attempts to reduce a decades-long affair into a three-act structure; it gets part of the way there. But director Haynes manages to do a solid job of picking up the slack. This is the type of worthy activist filmmaking that feels like a committed passion project that actually works on both an emotional level and one that will make viewers angry beyond words.
The last few title cards about the true scope of the damage done by DuPont are extraordinary and horrifying, and make the rest of the film feel entirely justified and quite necessary as a piece of filmmaking and a way to make a complicated situation all too clear.
Performances wise, Mark Ruffalo tackles the role of the lawyer with the conscience wonderfully. Ruffalo, whose personal passion for this story helped put it on-screen, is the perfect unassuming hero, bringing a sort of shambling intensity to Bilott and asking questions in a probing mumble. There are no dramatic outbursts or polemical speeches from him. He voices his caring nature not through words but through his actions.
Mark Ruffalo‘s steady demeanor is countered by Anne Hathaway‘s occasionally over the top histrionics that show the emotional toll one man was undergoing in his battle against DuPont. We also get some great supporting work from the likes of Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham and William Jackson Harper. On the whole, ‘Dark Waters’ is a powerful and socially conscious drama which serves as a riveting piece of activist cinema that will hopefully provoke debate and bring some greater oversight.
Directed – Todd Haynes
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 127 minutes