Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway
Remember the vast warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark where the titular treasure is surreptitiously hidden at the end of the movie? Imagine being the person who has to go in there and find it again. Without guidance. Or, not only that, collate all the artifacts in said warehouse and organise them into some kind of chronological narrative.
If the thought of having to achieve such a labyrinthine task fills you with tingles of orderly euphoria, you might well gain some perverse pleasure from a particular sequence in Todd Haynes’ grimly tense eco-thriller; a methodical retelling of one of the greatest corporate malfeasance cases in American law.
We meet Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) in the late ’90s. He’s a schlubby, hardworking, quietly devout man; a lawyer who specialises in protecting big chemical companies across the United States. So it’s something of an about-turn when he grows interested in a lone farmer’s outcries of water contamination in his West Virginian home town. Visiting the man at the behest of his grandmother, Bilott is shocked to discover a blighted patch of land and a startling cattle graveyard. The farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp, sporting an accent almost as thick as his fake eyebrows), has buried some 190 cows. Something isn’t right, and he blames chemicals in the water supply, citing vast (and local) manufacturing giant DuPont as the culprit.
Following a swooning period romance (Carol) and a time-traversing fairy tale (Wonderstruck), the prospect of a rigorous ‘true life’ legal battle from the clearly versatile Haynes might seem to come out of left field. But, given that his 1995 career-maker Safe cast Julianne Moore as an LA housewife suddenly beset by environmental illnesses, Dark Waters in fact marks a return to past preoccupations as opposed to a step into uncharted territory. This is Haynes wading back in, if you will.
If the name of the piece openly recalls Hideo Nataka’s 2002 chiller Dark Water, the horror connotation isn’t as misplaced as you might think, either. Haynes makes our own paranoia work against us. Without resorting to histrionics, he patiently ratchets up a sense of exceedingly palpable unease, especially when Bilott’s mind gets racing to the kind of extremes DuPont might go to in order to win the fight. The facts of the case are darkly harrowing in themselves. All it takes are a few black-toothed smiles from the yokels to sell Haynes’ deep-seated sense of rot in the good ol’ US of A.
The land is soiled. The water is poisoned. The breadth of exposure is vast. The enormity of the crime is such that it chimes with our growing sense of unease at the world around us, a place that so often seems to be slipping out of our control. Bilott’s dogged determination is exceedingly touching as a result. The low burning flame in all of us, we’d like to think. While those effected by DuPont’s actions can’t simply be cured, one senses in Bilott an attempt to cleanse himself. Having protected firms like DuPont for so long, his struggle to validate people like Wilbur Tennant comes to feel like an attempt at self-baptism. If only he could find water pure enough again. It is in that sense that he feels connected to Julianne Moore’s character Carol in Safe.
Ruffalo is on board here as a producer and that makes a whole lot of sense. The actor is a vocal activist on Twitter and other platforms, and this is clearly a story he wants to do right by. His Bilott isn’t a showy performance. You’ll note it (unfairly) slipped past most of the award ceremonies this winter. But it is rooted in the humane. It’s probably his most tightly calibrated turn since that other high-point of 21st century investigative cinema, David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Anne Hathaway has the thankless task of contrasting Bilott’s obsessiveness with the everyday turmoils of being The Wife to such a time-consuming endeavour. She does get some dramatic meat to chew through, though the lion’s share of this material doesn’t arrive until deep into the picture. Nevertheless, like everyone else, its a marginal supporting role when compared to the tower of work being handled by Ruffalo.
Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script is a minor miracle in itself. The ability to parcel out complex information while simultaneously advancing the narrative at a natural-seeming pace is perhaps the greatest hidden weapon Dark Waters has in its considerable arsenal. Combined with Haynes’ affecting direction – lightly laced with the dark smudges of decay and an always-evocative sense of space – Dark Waters takes material that could have easily been rendered dry and dreary, and injects it with a kind of searing necessity that’s redolent of ’70’s thriller guru Alan J Pakula. That’s the level we’re looking at here.
Occasionally – very occasionally – the balance tips oddly. Bill Pullman strides into the picture as things start getting litigious, and his performance is a might larger than anyone else at the table. As a result, he sticks out a little awkwardly. Similarly, while the script almost completely skirts hokey grandstanding, Tim Robbins is handed a speech that comes across with more than a generous side order of ham (it is worth reporting that he is otherwise excellent).
Once we get into the second hour – and as the years start ticking by – you could level a criticism that the film becomes episodic and almost grueling. A drudge to the finish line. Except that this is entirely deliberate. Its fitting for a story that’s often about digging your heels in and accepting the grind and possible futility of pushing back against enormous corporate power. This underdog sensibility is personified by Ruffalo. Bilott walks as though he has the world on his shoulders.
As for Haynes, he’s showing form here that sits comfortably alongside his finest efforts. Don’t let the dour nature of the subject dissuade you. This is likely the best movie of it’s kind since Michael Mann’s The Insider.
Now, where can I get a job organising that warehouse…?