Today, we’re all tired. We’re all burned out. Often, conversations between people in their twenties and thirties are effectively a battle of one-upmanship, in which we compete to be the most exhausted person in the room. It’s fair to say, though, that few of us have ever been as tired as the environmental attorney Rob Bilott. Since the late 1990s, Bilott has been waging a war against the gargantuan chemical company DuPont about the contamination of US water supplies. It doesn’t sound like riveting stuff, but Todd Haynes’ engrossing drama Dark Waters turns it into something very interesting indeed.
Mark Ruffalo plays Bilott, whose specialism is defending chemical companies against potentially expensive environmental lawsuits. He is approached at work by grizzled West Virginia farmer Earl (Bill Camp) – a friend of his grandmother – and learns that the man’s cattle are dying at an alarming rate. Earl attributes this to some sort of chemical running into the creek from the DuPont-owned landfill bordering his property. Through painstaking research, Bilott is able to confirm Earl’s suspicions.
Dark Waters is, first and foremost, a meticulously plotted conspiracy thriller that primarily focuses on Ruffalo’s fiercely driven legal eagle, surrounded by stacks of filing boxes and intimidating reams of documents. There are few actors better at conveying the weight of the world on their shoulders and Ruffalo almost seems to withdraw, visibly greying, into the collar of his dark suit as the case draws on and on. His quivering hands betray the impact of the stress, the exhaustion and the rage he often feels at the injustice he’s fighting so tirelessly to uncover, fracturing his relationships with his wife (Anne Hathaway) and boss (Tim Robbins).
There’s a palpable sense of David vs. Goliath in Haynes’ storytelling, with a script by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan which does a solid job of getting a complex story into the confines of a movie. Occasionally, the complexity and intricacy of the science – prepare to learn some chemical acronyms – threatens to overwhelm the film, and there are moments of stodginess, but Haynes keeps the gas pedal down. Even though there are years of Bilott’s battle in which nothing happens, Dark Waters makes us feel the helplessness and the frustration of the ticking clock.
Above all else, this is a tale of corporate greed overtaking moral responsibility. From the early scenes in which John Denver’s classic track Take Me Home, Country Roads is deployed ironically over shots of the DuPont-dominated West Virginia setting to the almost unbelievable courtroom sequences, the tone throughout is one of outrage. Bilott is a hero driven by forensic detail, but Haynes and the writers showcase just how unimportant that detail can be in the face of corporate power.
In the face of this almost inconceivable struggle, Dark Waters is keen to establish the complex dynamic of Bilott’s life. Though his work is, by necessity, undertaken largely solo, he is given invaluable support by his wife Sarah, who is given depth by Hathaway even as the script finds little room for her. Robbins, meanwhile, is largely underused as law firm boss Tom Terp, but flexes his muscles in at least one grand-standing speech that brings to mind memories of Peter Finch’s iconic freak-out in Network.
But for all of the difficulties in Bilott’s battle, the overriding tone at the conclusion of Dark Waters is one of inspiration and of the tide finally turning. In the real world, the impact of Bilott’s work continues to spread ripples throughout the chemical industry and, since the movie’s Stateside release in November, DuPont’s stock has taken a further hit.
Dark Waters is a mature, eloquent and well-performed drama that, aware of the scrutiny it will inevitably face, ensures its punches land with pinpoint accuracy without ever sacrificing the potency of the drama. With a tremendous, frazzled Ruffalo at its heart, also, the human cost of this crusade can be felt right to the bones.
Dir: Todd Haynes
Scr: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan
Prd: Pamela Koffler, Mark Ruffalo, Christine Vachon
DOP: Edward Lachman
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Run time: 127 mins
Dark Waters is in UK cinemas from 28th February.