Dark Waters: The System Doesn’t Protect Us, We Do, by Dave Platt

The opening sequence of Dark Waters begins on the quiet streets of Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1975. The atmosphere is one of a small country town, ordinary folks living peaceful lives, serenaded by country music on the radio. But as we watch as a group of carefree young people go skinny dipping nearby, what is conjured most of all is not some nostalgic idyll, but the foreboding of a horror film. This innocence, we immediately sense, is the backdrop to something terrifying. From here we move to Cincinnati, in 1998, where Mark Ruffalo’s Rob Bilott works as a corporate defense attorney at a reputable firm that has just made him partner. As we meet him, he is forced to leave a meeting to deal with the intrusion of farmer Wilbur Tennant, a Parkersburg man whose cattle, he claims, are dying thanks to the chemicals of the massive nearby Du Pont plant. Thus are the wheels set in motion in the latest from Carol and Far from Heaven director Todd Haynes.

At first skeptical, Bilott decides to visit his grandmother in Parkersburg, where, as it turns out, his family is from. When he sees the devastation of Tennant’s farm for himself, it doesn’t take long before he begins to suspect Wilbur may be right about Du Pont dumping their chemicals into the local waters around his farm. It’s the beginning of a case that will consume him for more than fifteen years. Bilott’s takes the case assuming it will find some routine resolution that helps everybody, including Du Pont. But, as he begins to dig up secrets, his efforts are met with increasing pushback and, eventually, hostility, leading to one of the film’s most gripping moments, in which Rob begins to realize Du Pont might just stop at nothing to be rid of him. That dynamic, the sheer size and financial capabilities of the corporation weighed against the will of Rob and those few lowly clients he represents, is one of the movie’s key sources of tension and frustration.

Between the ever-deepening conspiracy, the growing paranoia, Bilott’s neglected wife and kids, Dark Waters is a fairly straightforward example of this type of story. But Haynes excels as a visual stylist – plunging us into a world that often feels bathed in the murky green and blue of the poisoned Parkersburg waters themselves – and he has always been a director capable of drawing honest and soulful performances from his actors. The result is a powerful, muscular and intelligent film anchored by Ruffalo’s portrayal of a man slowly realizing that what he’s believed about the world, and his place in it, has been tragically naïve. There’s an obvious comparison to be drawn between Ruffalo’s performance here and his Academy Award-nominated turn as crusading journalist Mike Rezendes in 2015’s Spotlight. But where that performance, though impressive, came in service of portraying a relatively one-dimensional good guy, here he exceeds that work playing a character initially reluctant to assume the role of champion for the little guy, trained to protect corporations rather than hold them to account. Ruffalo captures Bilott’s increasing outrage and weariness, as well as his obsessive work ethic, with characteristic naturalism and earnestness. And as the scale of Du Pont’s damage and the brazenness of their nefarious decades-long cover-ups slowly becomes clear, and Ruffalo is able to embody just the right combination of cynicism and righteousness. He’s not the only worthy performance in the film, though. In particular, Anne Hathaway, playing Bilott’s wife Sarah, and Bill Camp, who plays the aggrieved eeryman Wilbur Tennant with a gruff, wounded nobility, do a great job. Although Sarah spends much of the film dutifully supporting her husband, Haynes takes care to show us that she is as intelligent and capable as Rob is, and makes a point out of acknowledging her story, a promising young woman who gave up her career to raise their family. It’s Hathaway’s more demonstrative and emotional performance, really, which drives home just how great the toll is that the case takes on the Bilotts, and as the movie goes on she is thankfully given some more interesting things to do and notes to play. The main players in the ensemble such as Victor Garber, Tim Robbins, Mare Winningham, and a suitably twangy and squinty Bill Pullman are all on fine form, too.

Dark Waters is critical not just of Du Pont, who for decades knowingly poisoned Parkersburg residents and exposed workers on their Teflon line to potentially fatal chemicals (before lying about it), but also of a legal system and government that allowed them to get away with such things. That systemic critique is one of the film’s main strengths, a more affecting (and effective) treatment of the material than simply that of just the heroic individual. Concerned with more than just Du Pont’s overt villainy, the film’s runtime is littered with moments that gesture toward society’s myriad ingrained injustices, oppressive dynamics of class, race and gender that Todd Haynes has long shown himself to be critically aware of. Even in its more formulaic moments, Dark Waters is a lucid and deeply humane film, and an indictment of a system in which corporations are treated like people, but human beings are not.

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