PLOT: A corporate attorney (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by a troubled farmer (Bill Camp) who believes the DuPont Company is responsible for polluting his property, which has led to his cattle dying off at alarming rates. Soon it becomes apparent that not only are the farmer’s animals being poisoned, but the whole community is suffering the effects of contaminated drinking water.
REVIEW: Todd Haynes’s DARK WATERS is a familiar story, but that fact alone makes it all the more terrifying. In a world that made sense, the stories documented in movies like A CIVIL ACTION and ERIN BROCKOVICH would be one-offs. Yet, headlines seem to suggest otherwise, and DARK WATERS is perhaps the most terrifying one of these films yet in how it documents the lengths DuPont went to deny Telflon contamination was a thing, and worse – how bent they were on ultimately not taking responsibility for the people they hurt.
Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, a real-guy and certainly as inspiring a hero as we’ve ever seen in a movie like this. His character is a guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps from his small-town upbringing, is making amazing money working for a big law firm, and has no compunction at all in working for the corporations he’d later be fighting. When Bill Camp’s ornery farmer comes to see him, he mocks him, saying he’s got the wrong guy, but in the face of what DuPont’s really up to, he can’t help but get involved.
Overall, this is a pretty grim story, with every victory Bilott wins immediately getting shut down by another massive setback, with a company like DuPont having no problem throwing money from a seemingly bottomless supply at the case to keep it tied-up in court. Probably the only thing we can kind of feel good about here is that there are guys like Bilott that are willing to keep fighting, and surprisingly, that his high-priced law firm is willing to go to bat for him. His boss, played by Tim Robbins in corporate mode, initially seems like he’s going to be one of the bad guys but turns out to be relatively good as far as these things go.
Likewise, Anne Hathaway, as Bilott’s wife, is more three-dimensional than usual for these movies, with her shown to have a real problem with the fact that her hubby is sacrificing his career/livelihood and his health to fight a battle she thinks he has no chance of winning, even if she is ultimately someone who will always go to bat for him. It’s a touch of realism as when you’re watching someone you love fight a battle like this from the sidelines, your emotions are likely more complicated than just blind support, even if your love for them ultimately trumps everything, and Hathaway does a lot with what could have been a thankless part.
It’s certainly a major change of pace for Todd Haynes, who’s never made a film this conventional, although looking at his filmography it does feel logical that the director of SAFE would be interested in taking this on. He gives the film a real sense of pace and foreboding, reminiscent in some ways with what Michael Mann did with THE INSIDER twenty years ago.
Through it all, this is certainly Mark Ruffalo’s movie, and he’s at his best as Bilott, giving us the sense that while he’s a hero he’s still utterly overwhelmed by the forces he’s being forced to confront, making his fight a lot grimmer than the more empowering ones seen in films like ERIN BROCKOVICH. Ultimately, he’ll keep fighting the good fight, but the toll it takes is emphasized here, and Ruffalo nails the part.
In some ways, it’s a shame DARK WATERS is being shoehorned into the Oscar season, as it’s probably too low key to compare to the flashier titles out there. Nevertheless, it’s a strong, compelling work and scarier in its way than any legit horror movie we’ve been lately. Ruffalo’s played superheroes before and in a very real way – he’s playing one here too.