At the end of Dark Waters, a dense, angry drama about the horrifying health effects of corporate negligence, it’s possible, and perhaps quite likely, to leave the cinema with complaints about the specifics of the film-making. Sometimes it pushes too much, sometimes not enough, a conventional procedural with undeniable flaws. But what’s entirely impossible as the credits roll, is to leave without a palpable sense of fury, a real world, off-screen outrage directed not just at a particular issue but at a particular company. It’s a film that works best as a two-hour assault on DuPont, a chemical company with toxic blood all over its hands.
It shouldn’t be this rare to see a film in 2019 imploring us to bear witness to crimes committed by a hugely powerful, and profitable, corporation, one that’s named and shamed repeatedly throughout, but it still feels like an outlier, belonging more in the 70s than it does now. It’s this focused rage that propels it forward, giving it a vitality that’s often missing from the direction, a strange choice for director Todd Haynes whose films are typically known for their queerness and vibrancy.
Here he’s a steady, if anonymous, pair of hands, telling a story based on a shocking New York Times long read about dogged, modest corporate lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) who’s confronted with a game-changing case. Working for a high-profile law firm, acting on behalf of major chemical clients, he finds himself reminded of his humble beginnings when a farmer from his home town of Parkersburg enters his slick office. His farm is dying, or more specifically his cows are, 190 of them to date, and he’s convinced that it’s a result of drinking water infected by a neighbouring factory owned by DuPont, one of the world’s largest chemical companies. Bilott is initially reluctant to take on a personal case, given his firm’s focus on corporate clients, but he finds the evidence undeniable and the further he digs, the bigger the case becomes.
It’s been quite the year for big-screen whistleblowers, kicked off in Sundance with Amazon’s tight, tense CIA thriller The Report and the far more plodding Katharine Gun drama Official Secrets. Dark Waters falls somewhere between the two, solidly effective and mostly involving yet relying a little too much on the dusty conventions of the subgenre to make a major mark. Arriving in the thick of awards season, it’s likely to get buried, or drowned, by the competition although its damning snapshot of corporate corruption and one man’s tireless, heroic effort to expose it should be seen and remembered. It probably would have been a surer fit for Netflix and Haynes’s muted work behind the camera gives it the feel of a film intended for the small screen.
It’s his most straightforward project to date and his serviceable work is matched with an equally sturdy script from Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, the latter having ample experience in taking Goliath to task having co-written 2016’s criminally underrated, BP-baiting Deepwater Horizon. There’s a simple pleasure in watching Bilott do his job and do it well, despite the odds that were stacked against him and Ruffalo avoids turning him into a showman, quietly and diligently finding a way to bring DuPont to task within the framework of the legal system. The focus on the minutiae of the case makes the film’s silly, incongruous scene of Bilott worrying his car might be rigged to explode feel all the more unnecessary (it was predictably used in the trailer, hoping to fool viewers into thinking of this as a thriller). Instead, it’s the insidious confidence of a company of this scale that has a far more chilling effect, the accepted knowledge that wealth will win no matter what.
Ruffalo is reliably solid in the lead, keeping his performance believably dialled down but those around him are less well-modulated. There are oversized turns, or at least scenes, from Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman and especially Bill Camp as the farmer in need while, as Bilott’s wife, Anne Hathaway is both miscast and misused. The thankless wife role is a given in this territory and what’s frustrating here is how the film gives us an interesting thread (Bilott’s wife was also a lawyer who gave up her career to have children) and then abandons it completely. Attaching an actor of Hathaway’s status leads us to expect more than what she’s given and when her big scenes do come, they don’t land. We can see her acting too hard which automatically removes us from the naturalistic setting.
Misgivings aside, Dark Waters deserves to make an impact and early speculation suggests that it will. This week a Wall Street analyst, after watching the film, claimed that it could be “very damaging” for DuPont and perhaps that’s its biggest ace. As a drama, it’s patchy but as a document, it’s undeniable.