There seems to come a time in every ‘90s American independent filmmaker’s career where they make their Social Justice movie. Soderbergh, Linklater, Van Sant and others have already been there, to varying degrees of success – for Todd Haynes, his time is now.
Based on the true decades-long struggle of lawyer Rob Bilott to hold one of the world’s largest chemical companies accountable for environmental pollution and public health concerns, Dark Waters is a film that’s as relevant in today’s world as it’s ever been. As countless corporate and political powers continue to choose money over the environment, constantly endangering our entire planet’s existence in the process, this one-man-against-the-system story inherently has a rousing passion burning within it.
After making partner at the Cincinnati-based corporate defense legal firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, Rob Bilott (the kind of quiet, determined man that Mark Ruffalo was born to play) is approached out of the blue by Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from the small West Virginia town that Rob spent part of his childhood in, claiming that the DuPont chemical company have been dumping something near his property that’s killing his cows. Initially skeptical, Bilott investigates nonetheless, uncovering a widespread pattern of corruption and corporate malfeasance that causes him to switch sides and file suit against the company he’s been defending for years. As he digs further, he not only discovers that whatever is harming the wildlife is also in the town’s water supply, but also embedded in the everyday products all over America that use DuPont chemicals.
Todd Haynes has spent the better part of his film making career blowing up the facade of the ideal American life, so he’s actually well-suited to tackle this hot-button tale. The realities of being exposed to deadly chemicals through common items like frying pans and raincoats isn’t that dissimilar to the domestic horrors that Julianne Moore experienced back in 1995’s Safe. The gloomy rural West Virginia locales and cold office boardrooms may be new visual territory for him but he brings along cinematographer and long-time collaborator Ed Lachman to imbue the film with the kind of painterly warmth that signifies his work.
The narrative itself can be somewhat conventional, however, following the same kind of beats that these films usually do, particularly when it comes to Bilott’s increasingly strained home life. As Sarah Bilott, Anne Hathaway gets saddled with the same kind of put-upon wife role that is too often seen in these social crusader stories. Kept on the sidelines of the main plot, Sarah mainly just appears to chastise her husband for neglecting his family or to listen incredulously to something new that he’s uncovered. Not that I know anything about the Bilott’s family life, but I imagine there’s more shading than what’s on screen. When Rob ends up in the hospital due to a stress-related medical condition, Sarah admonishes his boss at the firm for trying to offer empty condolences by declaring, “Don’t talk to me like I’m just the wife!” But based on what we’ve been watching, it becomes an almost unintentionally humourous statement.
What Dark Waters does get right is the complex notion of what it means to do the right thing. As DuPont keeps changing the legal goal posts to get around any new claim thrown at them and the very people Rob is trying to save in West Virginia turn against him when they begin to lose their DuPont factory jobs, it becomes murkier and murkier to see the right away through. Yet Bilott keeps powering through and Mark Ruffalo (also acting as a producer) draws on that controlled and focused outrage that hit us in the gut in Spotlight to give us a real-life hero we can root for.
It does feel somewhat strange to see a corporate takedown picture that is itself made by a massive corporation (“A Comcast Company” appears garishly at the beginning under the Focus Features logo). But hey, I guess you have to take your victories where you can.
- Rated: PG-13
- Genre: Drama, Thriller
- Release Date: 11/29/2019
- Directed by: Todd Haynes
- Starring: Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp, Bill Pullman, Louisa Krause, Mare Winningham, Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, William Jackson Harper
- Produced by: Christine Vachon, Mark Ruffalo, Pamela Koffler
- Written by: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan
- Studio: Focus Features