One of my disturbing movies this year isn’t a horror film, though it sounds like one. Dark Waters explores the murky depths of capitalist corruption by bringing to light a true story that’s deeply terrifying.
Based on The New York Times’ article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” Dark Waters centers on corporate lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), who built his career on defending corporations. But when one lawsuit hit close to home, Bilott switched sides to represent a West Virginia farmer who suspected his land, water, and cattle were being poisoned by the local DuPont plant. It was supposed to be a simple matter, but has spiraled into decades of unsettling discoveries and hard-fought legal battles.
The real story is complicated, packed with legalese and chemistry. However, Mario Correa’s screenplay shrewdly uses Rob as the audience conduit for the latter, having him ask questions about curious chemical chains and their reactions. We might not understand the complexities of the manmade C8, but when a furrow-browed Rob asks what’d happen if you drink it, we understand nothing good by the flabberghasted reaction from the expert he’s interrogating. As for the legalese, Rob’s constantly explaining updates on the case to his wife (Anne Hathaway) and clients, which allows laymen to follow the proceedings. As they dive into loopholes, Ruffalo bursts forth with a monologue, swiftly delivering crucial details while also fanning our fury over the findings. In an impassioned speech, he bellows, “The system is rigged. They want us to think it’ll protect us.” But Dark Waters shows how the system in America is not made for Americans but for corporations, who write their own rules by throwing money at problems like it’s pocket change. “We protect us. We do,” he declares, summing up the film’s thesis.
Dark Waters is a call to outrage. Ruffalo, a known environmental activist, is flexing his star power to draw attention to a news story that—once you’ve seen it—you’ll be shocked we don’t talk about every day. The film exposes extreme corporate corruption that puts untold human lives at risk, and it does so in the vein of thriller, some sugar to help the medicine go down. Yet thrillers are not what director Todd Haynes is known for.
His beat is typically swooning, glamor-laced dramas, like Carol, Far From Heaven and Velvet Goldmine. But there’ll be no glamor here. To pay tribute to the real people whose story this is, Haynes favors an earnest authenticity. Ruffalo’s lawyer, though well-reputed and successful, is not a swaggering hotshot. He hunches, wears ill-fitting suits, and has the stern side-comb hairstyle of a suburban dad. This seems intended to show that Rob was an ordinary guy, who chose to do something extraordinary in being the David to DuPont’s Goliath. Further authenticity is found in Hayne’s casting actual people involved in the lawsuit within the film. Some play themselves, while Billott and his real-life wife have brief cameos as background actors.
As a means of delivering information, Dark Waters is extraordinary and righteously infuriating. Though Haynes strips away his signature stylish spectacle, he digs into a looming dread and choking tension that makes this film feel like Michael Clayton, a mature thriller that is ruthlessly riveting with a message that scratches at your brain for days to come. Yet as a movie, Dark Waters stumbles on its good intentions and hero worship.
Rob’s journey is lost amid so much exposition about the case. When the frustrated farmer comes barging into the reception area of his fancy Cincinnati office, all we know about Rob is that he’s a lawyer recently promoted to partner. The dialogue will later inform us that he knows all the tricks DuPont will pull because he’s pulled them himself. Because we are denied seeing the old Rob in action, his radical and profound evolution into eco-warrior is undercut. But this isn’t the only place Rob’s story is crudely cropped.
Breaking up sequences of Rob at work are scenes at home, where Rob’s sons are born and raised by a wife that’s losing patience with being essentially widowed by this case for years and years. If you’ve seen comedian Natalie Walker’s parody of “the wife” in issues movies, you’ve seen the role Hathaway is given to play. Sarah Bilott is painted chiefly as a nag, who repeatedly questions her husband’s involvement with this case. In the latter half of the film, she is given a flowery speech, but it’s about how extraordinary a person her husband is, even as he neglects his family to fight for other families. She exists chiefly to point out how much he has sacrificed in this noble pursuit. But the thread about whether their marriage will survive this hellish work/life imbalance is cut short to rush Rob back into the courtroom.
Dont’ mistake me, what Bilott has done and is doing is undeniably laudable. But part of why it’s so laudable is because of how he’s changed, what he’s risked and sacrificed. Dark Waters de-emphasizes the less flattering elements of his character, perhaps to pay tribute him. It’s a mistake a lot of biopics make, pushing a complex person to the realm of a Teflon hero, onto whom no flaws might stick. By dodging his troubling past and marital conflict, Dark Waters scrubs away the elements that make Rob more an everyman than a thin sheen of visional scruff can. If Dark Waters aims not only to tell Billott’s story, but also to inspire others to follow in his path, it’d do better to show him warts and all. Show him as human, not saint, as relatable, not untouchable. Thereby, the film would show us that while the road to change might be long and hard, it doesn’t take an extraordinary man, just extraordinary courage.
Dark Waters opens November 22.
Header Image Source: Focus Features