Todd Haynes, the director that brought us “Carol,” “Far from Heaven” and “Velvet Goldmine,” opts for a good old-fashioned corporate thriller with “Dark Waters” based on the 2016 New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich.
The film stars the always dependable Mark Ruffalo as real-life environmental lawyer Rob Bilott who went from defending large corporations to suing one of the biggest – Dupont – for exposing people and animals to toxic chemicals. With a first-rate supporting cast that features Anne Hathaway as Rob’s wife, Sarah, Tim Robbins as supportive boss Tom and Bill Camp as the West Virginia farmer seeking answers after losing 190 head of cattle.
It’s the mid-’90s and soft spoken but passionate lawyer Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) has just made partner at the Cincinnati law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, run by senior partner Tom Terp (Tim Robbins). The firm specializes in defending large corporations. In fact, Bilott has worked on a couple of cases for Dupont.
Bill Camp, sporting a heavy Appalachian accent, plays farmer Wilbur Tennant from Parkersburg, W.V., who has traveled to Cincinnati to see Bilott after hearing that he was a fancy environmental lawyer. Tennant is angry about what’s happening in his town. He accuses Dupont of poisoning the water with toxic chemicals, which has led to the deaths of most of his cows. He’s even brought a box of VHS tapes as proof, but Bilott explains he’s a corporate lawyer who defends chemical companies and suggests to Tennant that he hire a local lawyer from West Virginia. Tennant explains that no one will take the case. alluding that Parkersburg is owned by Dupont. Just as he’s about to leave, Tennant mentions knowing Bilott’s grandmother who lives in the area, which causes Bilott to take an interest in the case.
And so the crusade begins. Bilott travels to Tennant’s farm to witness the devastation firsthand. He wonders if the water is killing off the cattle, then what is it doing to the small town’s residents? Terp agrees to let Bilott take the case on the side, thus suing Dupont, hoping they can reach a quick resolve and quietly move forward. Little did they know that the case was going to turn into a full-fledged 20-year battle against the corporate giant.
Hathaway has a smaller than usual role as Bilott’s wife, Sarah, a former lawyer who left her career to raise their sons. It would have been nice to see her character expanded. She supports her husband at first, but becomes concerned by the toll the case is taking on his health and the family.
Dupont executive Phil Donnelly is played by solid actor Victor Garber who befriends Bilott until he begins to dig deeper into Dupont’s coverup. This leads to a melodramatic moment where Garber calls Bilott a “hick.”
There are a few more melodramatic moments in the film written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, but Haynes does a terrific job of keeping the audience riveted. The film benefits by stating the facts without convoluting the story with a bunch of technical jargon. Terms like PFOA and the more familiar Teflon come into play, but the film remains concise as a straightforward investigative thriller.
If something needs to be investigated Ruffalo is our man. The actor has done that several times in films that include “Spotlight,” “Shutter Island,” “Zodiac” and, of course, as David Banner/The Hulk in “The Avengers” films. He’s become this generation’s Jimmy Stewart as an actor that represents the trustworthy down-to-earth everyman. Ruffalo’s performance is once again on the money.
The holidays are a great time to get together with family and friends to watch a good investigative thriller. “Dark Waters” is compelling and effective as it uncovers the deception by one of America’s biggest chemical corporations. FYI, you may want to throw out some of your skillets.