Dark Waters, the latest based-on-true-events conspiracy thriller, seems to tread familiar ground. It shares much in common with Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Oscar winner about sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy, insofar that piles up hidden offense after hidden offense in the form of an investigation, and how it overwhelms audiences untill we’re thoroughly seething with outrage. Mark Ruffalo stars, as exasperated as ever. Though in this case, the villain is a negligent corporation throwing money at its problems, lining the pockets of powerful men while government institutions prove too slow or entirely incapable of holding them accountable for their misdeeds. Dark Waters may not feature the caliber of performances that Spotlight has in spades, and its muddled script leaves much to desired, but what it lacks in polish it makes up for in visual curiosity. It’s an unorthodox undertaking for director Todd Haynes, a pioneer of queer cinema, but he nevertheless succeeds in bringing to the film a situation-appropriate sense of weariness and decay.
Mark Ruffalo plays Cincinnati-based environmental lawyer Robert Bilott, a newly anointed partner at a bigwig law firm that tends to defend chemical companies rather than accuse them. Things get personal, however, when a West Virginia farmer – a friend of Bilott’s grandma – shows up at the office one day with a box of videotapes documenting the mysterious deaths of his 190 cows. The culprit, claims the burly Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), is the Dupont Chemical Company, a powerful entity that owns half the town’s facilities and serves as its top employer. Bilott is skeptical at first, but a visit to Tennant’s farm in Parkersberg, WV proves unsettling, inspiring him to get to the bottom of Tennant’s claims that Dupont is poisoning his water supply. What starts as a small-scale investigation unwinds into a string of horrifying revelations about Dupont’s extraordinary negligence, and failure to properly disclose the effects of a chemical it uses in household products that sell all over the world.
The film boasts a number of tense courtroom showdowns and impassioned monologues, which is expected. But the life source is draining: for an ongoing case that’s not reaping any profits against a defendant that is seemingly financially inexhaustible, it becomes more and more difficult for Bilott to justify his efforts to his boss (Tim Robbins) and wife (Anne Hathaway). The script stumbles over explaining how Bilott makes conclusive leaps that lead him from revelation to revelation, and as a result some of his biggest breakthroughs seem anti-climactic. On the other hand, the film isn’t really about the various intricacies of science in the way that something like Chernobyl breaks down the facts and the corresponding government failures. What stands out is a sense of spiritual drainage.
The story begins in 1998, but the claims against Dupont are being disputed in court to this day. Haynes really hammers home the idea of a single man, and some key helpers (Bill Pullman, for instance, play’s Bilott’s showboating trial attorney) against the endless pushback of Dupont and their infinite resources. Ruffalo looks tired, and the world around him is grey and dreary as he copes with the reality that the “little guy” needs to fight for himself. And with the knowledge that so many terrible secrets exist right beneath our noses, everyday things become menacing: kids riding bicycles, streams of water. Positivity and hope comes in short supply in Dark Waters, but maybe that’s a good thing. The fight is never ending, after all. Best we get used to it.