DARK WATERS ★★★★
(M) 126 minutes
The groundswell of dogged determination propelling this environmental thriller is so powerful that it deals effortlessly with the knotty tangle of facts packed into its plot. Much of this is down to the film’s star and initiator, Mark Ruffalo, playing a whistleblower whose courage has little to do with the flashier brand of heroism displayed by more conventional movie crusaders.
Bill Camp (left) as Wilbur Tennant and Mark Ruffalo (right) as Robert Bilott in in Dark Waters.
Rob Bilott doesn’t delight in contest and confrontation. His virtues lie in persistence and an inexhaustible curiosity. He’s a modest man, who is reluctantly drawn into a case so consuming it threatens his career, marriage and health. At times, Ruffalo is reduced to an appalled silence, his long stare speaking of his fear of being buried under the mess he’s uncovered.
Bilott is a corporate lawyer who has acted for some of the US’ biggest chemical companies. His career trajectory takes an abrupt turn to the left with the discovery one of his firm’s most important clients, DuPont chemicals, is polluting the water of a town in West Virginia, causing cancers and birth defects and killing dairy cows and other farm animals.
At first, he tries diplomacy – not one of his strong suits – and raises the matter with DuPont’s corporate counsel. But that just deepens his dilemma. DuPont responds to his inquiries with overkill. Instead of refusing him any information, they bombard him with it. Boxes of files arrive at his office, filling an entire room and keeping him penned up for months as he sifts through reams of paper in a painstaking attempt to find something that he can use.
The film is an adaptation of a New York Times Magazine expose by Nathaniel Rich. Ruffalo bought the rights to it and hired Todd Haynes to direct – an unorthodox choice, given that Haynes’ biggest films, Far From Heaven and Carol, are lavishly furnished time trips which conjure up comparisons with Douglas Sirk’s romantic melodramas of the 1950s. Although, this, too, is a time trip of sorts. Bilott’s legal bouts with DuPont began in the 1990s, taking 20 years to reach a resolution. And it turns out Haynes can do much grainier work than his earlier films suggest. Dark Waters was shot in the winter and gloomy intimations of discord and decay are built into the very weather patterns. Nature is very angry.
The case begins when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), an enraged West Virginia farmer, dumps it in Bilott’s lap. He’s a neighbour of Bilott’s much loved grandmother and Bilott feels he should take a look, a decision that leads him to the revelation that DuPont has allowed toxic runoff from their nearby plant to seep into Tennant’s water supply, tainting it with PFOA, a chemical used in the making of Teflon cookware. Tennant’s cows have become infected with a lethal disease with nightmarish symptoms and Bilott’s investigations eventually confirm the runoff is responsible.
You might be relieved to know Bilott doesn’t spend too much of the film closeted with his piles of paper. He has a wife, Sarah (a fractious Anne Hathaway), who views his obsession with the case with a mixture of alarm, awe and growing respect for his tenacity, and he has a boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), who allows him extraordinary latitude tempered by the fact Bilott has been prepared to take a massive pay cut while his research continues. He has always been a bit of an outsider. Unlike his contemporaries, he didn’t have an Ivy League education and showiness has never been part of his repertoire as a lawyer. Terp values him because of his diligence, a quality that receives a thorough workout in the years that follow.
The plot contains a few unexplained loose ends, but they count for nothing when stacked up against the film’s basic accuracy. Its best quality lies in the fact it has no Eureka moment. Bilott’s wins are incremental – a series of advances and retreats that add up to victory. And even then, his story suggests, the battle is not over. If we’re to maintain a just balance between environmentalism, consumerism and corporate profits, it never will be.
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