By PIERS MARCHANT Special to the Democrat-Gazette | December 6, 2019, at 6:54 a.m.
Todd Haynes’ fact-based legal procedural Dark Waters begins in 1975, with a small crew of West Virginia teens jumping a fence one night and skinny-dipping in a local reservoir. Haynes films the scene with the moonlight edging the outline of the kids as they strip off their clothes, and then his camera shifts to a few feet deep in the murky water, their thrashing bodies mostly submerged. Suddenly, a spotlight shines on them and they are ordered out by a pair of DuPont workers in a small boat, spraying the water with some sort of chemical.
The scene’s early resemblance to Spielberg’s famous (and near-perfect) opening of Jaws hardly seems a coincidence, though the horrible monster lurking in the water to stalk those teens has nothing to do with nature, and everything to do with corporate greed and hubris.
If corporate malfeasance is what you want to showcase, DuPont is there for you. The film is based directly on an article from the New York Times Magazine (“The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich), which brought continued worldwide attention to DuPont’s blatant disregard for life on this planet by continuing to make the fluorochemical compound C8 (primarily for use on Teflon coatings) and dumping the waste anywhere they damn well pleased. As the film notes in a sobering postscript, by now, 99% of all living creatures on this planet have at least traces of this compound in their bloodstream and will for the rest of their lives.
Yes, the film is an environmental screed — noteworthy environmental evangelists Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins are the leads, for God’s sake — but that doesn’t make it any less truthful about DuPont’s reprehensible behavior, and the film’s relatively strict adherence to the facts, rather than Hollywood award-bait hokum, makes it something close to essential viewing.
We meet corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) at his high-rise law firm in Cincinnati, taking yet another meeting with a conglomeration of dignitaries from one chemical firm or another. As the film opens, in 1998, he has recently been made partner at Taft, a massive firm whose primary clients include major chemical companies such as DuPont, among others.
His meeting is interrupted by a farmer from West Virginia, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a plainspoken man with an overriding problem: He believes his farm has been poisoned by its proximity to a DuPont dumpsite, causing his livestock to die horribly and giving him and his wife medical problems of their own. Tennant drops off a box of homemade videotapes he has shot of his cows, miserable and dying, and the green muck of chemicals being poured into the creek by his farm from a drainage tube leading to the nearby DuPont chemical plant.
Initially, Bilott only takes the case because Tennant knows his grandmother, who lives in the same small West Virginia town. But soon, he becomes subsumed by it (a condition exacerbated by the mountains of discovery documents DuPont eventually sends to try and drown him in material), to the concern of his wife (Anne Hathaway), and boss (Robbins), who nonetheless stand by him, as he begins an interminable journey toward justice.
Bilott forages on, taking depositions and putting DuPont’s feet to the fire as it were, despite their endless stalling techniques. By the time the EPA is brought in to assess the blood work of some 70,000 West Virginians (a process that somehow manages to take seven years), it would seem DuPont is finally nailed, only for them to pull a final execrable maneuver in a last-ditch attempt to avoid substantive financial penalty (the $16 million fine the EPA sentences is barely a blip on their radar).
Nominally, it’s exactly the kind of film that Hollywood likes to trot out come awards season, attached to a big-name star gunning for an Oscar, but Ruffalo, also one of the film’s primary producers, is clearly not after that sort of surface acclaim. To that end, the production team enlisted Haynes to make the picture, an odd choice for what could be such nakedly emotional boilerplate. Haynes, whose track record (Carol, Far From Heaven, Safe) speaks to off-beat, interior-type films, drapes much of the imagery behind a scrim of filtered gray light, as if viewing it through used dishwater. And revels in dirtying up the frame with everything from glum exterior shots of the dilapidated farm, to the faded, beaten up appearance of the dashboard in Bilott’s battered Toyota.
Ruffalo himself has packed on substantive weight for the role and sports the awkward high side-part of the corporate shill, matching Hathaway’s horrendous early Betty Crocker ‘do. There’s nothing pretty in the film, Haynes makes clear, save that of the grit and guile of Bilott and his working-class plaintiffs, who are forced to act when their own useless government refuses, taking a corporate giant to task for putting all of their lives in danger.
Some of the film’s earnestness crests a bit too high on the strident scale (there are several beseeching monologues that you can imagine were written in ALL CAPS in the screenplay), but even the worst examples of Mario Correa’s final script (“The system is rigged! They want us to think it will protect us!”) can’t sap it of its powerful message. Working very closely from Rich’s original story, this is one film whose “inspired by true events” tag actually understates its strict adherence to the facts of the story. And those facts are absolutely blood-curdling: The utter indifference DuPont shows for everything on this planet is like something out of the worst supervillain schemes.
A great deal of the film’s outrage concerns the EPA, for essentially taking forever to do next to nothing to curb DuPont’s evil excesses. What is even more damning is the film concerns an already ineffective EPA before our current administration gutted it to the core and replaced its higher-ups with a hodgepodge of shills and cronies to further corporate interests without regulatory hindrance. Happy holidays.