Dir: Todd Haynes. Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Bill Pullman. 12A cert, 127 mins
It’s surprising to see Todd Haynes take interest in a project this conventional. He is, after all, a pioneer of New Queer Cinema with a preference for lush melodramas such as Far From Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015). But Dark Waters isn’t entirely out of his wheelhouse, since its themes are remarkably similar to those in his 1995 film Safe. Dark Waters is about the slow, horrifying discovery that the chemical company DuPont has, for decades, been hiding its use of the cancer-causing, man-made acid PFOA – now thought to be present in the bloodstream of 99 per cent of Americans. Thankfully, for the vast majority, it’s at too low a level to bring harm. Those who work in the plants that produce it or live nearby haven’t been so lucky.
Haynes pumps the film full of paranoia and isolation, so that it matches the sensations experienced by the protagonist of Safe – a housewife (Julianne Moore) who develops severe reactions to ordinary chemicals. The film commemorates the work of Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a Cincinnati lawyer who went from defending chemical companies to leading the charge against their corrupted practices. Dark Waters opens with the moment Bilott is approached by Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp, his voice weary and sawdust-choked), a farmer hailing from the lawyer’s home state of West Virginia. Tennant is adamant that DuPont has dumped chemical waste into his local creek and, in turn, killed 190 of his cows. As Bilott investigates, the ghastly extent of the company’s actions comes into focus – they’ve pushed poison to every American home. When it’s clear that Bilott intends to expose the truth, the smile melts off the face of DuPont’s chief executive (Victor Garber) and a choleric scowl takes its place. This company is ready to pull every dirty trick in the book.
As Bilott, Ruffalo could have amped up the glamour by playing a hotshot in order to flatter his A-list activist credentials (he also produced the film). But here, he deflates himself. He’s sullen and awkward in his movements – when the stress piles up, his hands starts to violently shake. He doesn’t present Bilott as the hero, but as a man who’s been awakened to the world of moral decency, only to be rewarded with powerlessness and ineffectual anger. A part of his mission is driven by loyalty to his small-town roots, though his enemies soon use it as a weapon against him (he’s labelled “a hick”).
Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s screenplay, based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine story “The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare”, is unfortunately packed with all the standard fluff expected from films about brave men doing great deeds. Bilott has a lightbulb moment triggered by looking at a children’s book called Funny Teeth, which makes him suddenly recall the blackened gums of Tennant’s neighbours. Anne Hathaway is landed with the “concerned wife” role, as her character intermittently berates Bilott for his dedication to the job. At least she does it with a fire in her belly.
But cinematographer Ed Lachman, who brought beauty and life to so many of Haynes’s other films, paints Dark Waters in sickly shades of yellow and green. In stark contrast, Tennant’s farm is drained of colour. It’s a world of slow decay and putrid smells – a kind of earthly purgatory. A tumour-riddled dog chases its own tail in the yard. As crucial as cold facts and hard data are here, Haynes argues eloquently for the power of empathy. And, in Dark Waters, he bathes his audience in pure terror like very few other directors could.