Early on in Dark Waters, director Todd Haynes’ adaptation of a real-life story of deadly corporate malfeasance, a West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) shows the protagonist, environmental defense lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) something that turns Rob’s stomach as well as the audience’s. After inviting the Cincinnati-based attorney to visit his run-down farm, Wilbur brings out a grim display of diseased animal parts (a twisted hoof in a jar, an enlarged spleen wrapped in foil) and forces the queasy Rob to look at every one of them. Something is going on with his animals, he insists—they’re dying off, developing strange tumors or being born with piteous deformities. Wilbur’s brother, ominously, has also been getting sick with a series of unidentifiable ailments. And despite the bland dismissals of the DuPont chemical company, which operates a massive plant on the land adjoining the Tennants’, Wilbur correctly suspects the problem has to do with a tainted water supply.
In the context of the mostly straightforward legal drama that is Dark Waters, this scene stands out as a jolt of pure body horror, an isolated Cronenbergian foray into the grotesque. But the disgust these sights provoke in Bilott in fact becomes crucial to the story, as his shock and nausea fuel his curiosity and, later, his rage as he slowly builds the case for a massive class-action lawsuit against DuPont. Dark Waters will be called Haynes’ most normie film yet, and in terms of subject matter and directorial style, it probably is. But Rob’s anguished encounter with the moral riddle posed by those awful, blighted bodies leaves us with an urgent sense of what will be at stake in the drab courtrooms and law firm board meetings to come. Like the director’s breakthrough feature, Safe, Dark Waters is an environmental fable that leaves painfully open the question “Just how worried should we be?”
The real-life story of Rob Bilott, who had built a career in part on defending big players in the chemical industry before taking on the Tennant family’s case, is one of quiet and at first reluctant heroism. In order to please his grandmother, a West Virginia native who had taken him to play at the Tennant farm as a child, he agrees to meet with the short-tempered Tennant, a decent man whose well-earned distrust of the legal system makes him a less than ideal client. A request for discovery from DuPont results in the delivery of dozens of boxes containing decades’ worth of lab results and interoffice correspondence—hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper, evidently intended to overwhelm and discourage the recipient.
But Rob, a dogged soul if ever there was one, warms to the task. Settling to the floor in a room piled ceiling-high with boxes, he pulls out a handful of papers and starts to sort through them one by one. The overhead shot this scene ends on, showing Rob as a tiny figure in a spiraling maze of cardboard cartons, made me think of a small-scale take on the famous crane shot in the Library of Congress sequence in All the President’s Men. In both, the vast difference in scale between researcher and quantity of material to be researched creates a feeling of both overwhelming hopelessness and infinite possibility. Like that great Watergate political thriller, Dark Waters traces the rot in a system—in this case a corporate, not political one—all the way to the top.
But if it’s thematically and sometimes visually indebted to the 1970s cinema of political paranoia, Dark Waters lacks a suspenseful Deep Throat subplot or a Parallax View–style deep state villain. The middle portion of the film, as Rob makes slow but steady progress toward piecing together the apparently dry contents of the DuPont document dump—what does PFOA stand for, and why is the company conducting experiments to determine its chemicals’ effect on pregnant rats?—could be said to plod a bit, although for fans of realistically inconclusive procedurals like David Fincher’s Zodiac, a plod can be a satisfying pace. The best way to appreciate Dark Waters is to accompany Rob down the monomaniacal rabbit hole as he grows more and more obsessed with the case, testing the patience of his generally supportive older partner at the firm (Tim Robbins) and all but completely alienating his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), a stay-at-home mother who gave up a law career of her own to raise their three sons.
Though Sarah’s legal acumen is mentioned in one scene, she never gets a chance to use it, not even in pillow talk conversations about her husband’s ongoing and eventually all-consuming lawsuit. Haynes has always shown a unique attunement to his female characters, often making them protagonists or, at the very least, richly detailed supporting characters. So the relatively familiar supportive-helpmeet role Hathaway plays, however convincingly acted and true to the real-life Sarah Bilott, feels like a step back for both actress and director.
The eternally unassuming Mark Ruffalo is a natural piece of casting for the unglamorously righteous Bilott. The 51-year-old actor is no stranger to playing fiercely persistent fact-finders, from the investigative reporter in Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning Spotlight to the tireless homicide detective in the aforementioned Zodiac. Rob is a Christian man in a quiet but crucial way, compelled by principles so deeply held they hardly count as “morals.” He’s physically driven to see this case through, to the point where, a decade or more into the case, he begins having seizurelike panic attacks. Ruffalo, himself a committed activist in the environmental and anti-fracking movements, convinces us of the truth of Bilott’s passion without turning him into a saint. As Rob’s wife keeps reminding him, the years he’s poured into battling for justice for his clients have all been years he hardly saw his family. The screenwriters, Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, push the irony of this not-that-unusual paradox a little too hard in multiple conversations between Rob and Sarah. But the growing friendship, or at least acceptance, shown to the attorney by the at first unfriendly Tennant family make for some of the movie’s most dramatically affecting scenes.
Todd Haynes, one of the industry’s most idiosyncratic and often visionary filmmakers, might be said to be overqualified for the job of turning out this timely if not innovative piece of environmental muckraking. And while I hope, for his next project, that he’s back on the less conventional, more stylish Haynes train, I’m glad we got to see what a Todd Haynes courtroom drama looked like.