Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a corporate lawyer, who is surprised by a local farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) when he claims that DuPont, a chemical company and the area’s largest employer, is poisoning the water, which has killed his cows and even people. Fascinated, Bilotti takes on the case and begins digging around, unveiling a terrible history of pollution, but how can one man take on a multi-million corporation?
Todd Haynes, known best for films such as Carol, I’m Not There and Far From Heaven, turns his gaze towards a classic underdog story; a guy against the establishment. Bilotti is just one man, taking on a huge, evil corporation but part of the American dream is the power an individual can have in the change for good.
Ruffalo turns in yet another compelling portrayal of a man fighting the good fight. Although it starts to feel a bit like a shtick, Ruffalo’s “brand”, it’s hard not to admire the sheer passion and quiet determination he portrays on screen. Ruffalo disappears into his roles, whether it be a real-life hero like Bilotti or a fantastical superhero like the Hulk and it’s always fascinating to watch Ruffalo bring his signature desperation on screen. The performance here isn’t quite as flashy as his role in Spotlight was, but make no mistake, this is powerful stuff.
Bill Camp is also gripping as the blue-collar farmer. It’s a portrayal which in the wrong hands could have become almost a parody, but Camp, a chameleon actor, underlines Tennant as a tragic figure, caught in the cross fire of justice and the livelihoods of hundreds. Bill Pullman, Victor Garber and Tim Robbins are give great performances but this is Ruffalo’s one-man show. Anne Hathaway plays Bilotti’s wife and although she’s yet another passive woman in a narrative driven by men, Haynes brilliantly uses her to portray the casual sexism of the times.
Dark Waters works like a well-oiled machine, thanks to Haynes’ impeccable direction. The film constantly toes the line between a quiet character drama and a tense legal thriller but works remarkably well in combining these. The film commits plenty of time for not only Bilotti’s eventual, shocking findings but also his gruelling, seemingly endless search for answers. This is entertainment with the fundamental need and desire for justice sewn into its DNA. Dark Waters is a serious, sometimes a little dry film that could have used a little humour to distract from all the hopelessness it portrays, but it also respects the victims of the real-life tragedy.
Much like Carol had a passionate, quietly furious heart beating underneath it’s dreamy visuals, Dark Waters hides an angry, desperate one pumping blood through its veins. Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman veil the film in muted colours and everything seems a little dusty and worn, but this is the work of a filmmaker who is disappointed in the system, disappointed in humanity, but also inspired by the individual and the fantasy of challenging the system. Bilotti’s story is just one of many and his search for truth and justice is an undeniably inspiring one. The narrative feels suffocating at times, as Bilotti is thoroughly outmatched by the big corporation hoping to bury the evidence. The film’s final act is a masterclass in portraying the mundane, unshowy realism of the tragedy as time passes by with no justice for the victims, many passing away. When the phone rings for the final time, bringing some good news, it feels like a breath of fresh air. The film’s 2-hour runtime feels exhausting, but purposely so and those who stick through it, are rewarded mightily at the end.
Dir: Todd Haynes
Scr: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on Nathaniel Rich’s article
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp
Prd: Pamela Koffler, Mark Ruffalo, Christine Vachon
DOP: Edward Lachman
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Run time: 126 minutes
Dark Waters is available on DVD July 6th.