Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp
Like any self-respecting horror movie, Dark Waters begins with two oblivious 1970s teenagers skinny-dipping in a river at night. We see prominent underwater shots of their naked legs wading into the deep end. Will it be a crocodile? A python? Or worse, a volcano? But the monster in Dark Waters is too omnipresent to be visible. A boat drives the couple away. The suspense fizzles out. The water, though, looked foamy. The danger isn’t immediate.
The narrative jumps to 23 years later, 1998, and immediately settles into the language of a whistleblower movie – otherwise known as a survival thriller in plain sight. An upcoming character is introduced, he sides with the underdog, risks his reputation and health, but never looks back. Robert Bilott, a corporate attorney who defends chemical corporations for a living, is newly promoted to partner of a prestigious law firm. He has a cool wife, a baby, another on the way. Everyone is happy, all is well. Simply put: A lot is at stake.
Mark Ruffalo is nothing like his idealistic, hot-headed Spotlight character – he is pragmatic and painfully persuasive here, a person who treats time as his constant companion
And then it begins. A visit from a gruff Cincinnati farmer (an unrecognizable and brilliant Bill Camp), video tapes of cows dying and tumours oozing, a toxic landfill, years of cover-ups and negligence. A conscience is found, and the lawyer embarks upon a long-time journey to fight the biggest chemical player in the world, DuPont, the inventors of Teflon. Teflon is everywhere. Teflon is the crocodile, the python, the slow-burning volcano. It has been introducing “forever chemicals” into the bodies of unsuspecting citizens for decades – a crime that cannot be seen or identified, but needs to be systematically proven. The suits will fight the suits. The good bad will take on the bad bad.
Mark Ruffalo is Bilott – a combination of the relentless heroes of Philadelphia, Spotlight, All The President’s Men, The Post, The Report – but the best thing about Bilott is that he is Mark Ruffalo. He looks like an inherently nice and ego-less man, seamlessly blending into the unlikely role of a lawyer obsessed with the need to bring justice to a world unaware of the ghosts haunting it. Remarkably, Ruffalo is nothing like his idealistic, hot-headed Spotlight character – he is pragmatic and painfully persuasive here, a person who treats time as his constant companion. He has a face that can be respectful and stubborn without being arrogant and theatrical – you almost feel sorry for his state, but there’s an enduring charm in the way his overworked gait keeps beating the odds. Even more remarkably, this is not the first time Ruffalo squares up against a villain called DuPont. In Foxcatcher – an eerie film that, in my opinion, marked his finest performance – he went up against Steve Carell’s powerful, eccentric and mentally unstable millionaire John Du Pont. Perhaps crazy rich Americans bring out the best in him.
Dark Waters is also an excellent example of a director defying the fundamental nature of his craft in service of a bigger story
For once, a whistleblower movie doesn’t surround the struggling protagonist with unempathetic and needlessly ignorant figures. Bilott’s wife (a lively Anne Hathaway) is worried about him, she scolds him, but she listens to him. She quietly believes in him. His boss (Tim Robbins), contrary to our perception of bloodsucking movie-lawyer bosses, delivers a stirring and righteous speech about needing to challenge public perception of their maligned profession – a monologue that, refreshingly, sounds less composed and more momentary. It’s an uplifting and rare moment, a silver-haired boss showing the guts to back his brave lawyer without quite addressing him. Even the villains of the DuPont stable aren’t shown planning and plotting against the firm; their corruption, like the damage their poisonous product inflicts, is sensed in every roadblock Bilott faces rather than seen.
It may look like a cliche, but Ruffalo particularly excels in standard scenes that show the hero descending into paranoia. His fear while slowly twisting the car key to turn on the engine in the DuPont garage reflects a similarly subtle moment from The Irishman in which a targeted mafia-man’s wife takes a sharp breath before switching on the ignition after she is fired from her job. It’s to these filmmakers’ credit that something as inconspicuous as a key can transcend the audiovisual terror of creaking doors and shady silhouettes. Dark Waters is also an excellent example of a director defying the fundamental nature of his craft in service of a bigger story. For those familiar with Todd Haynes’ filmography, a gritty and draining environmental drama is a charming surprise. Forget the process, not even the payoff can afford to be eye-catching.
The narrative has multiple whistleblower/investigative/journalism movie endings – a Spotlight-style moment where his face lights up at the communal response to his case, a courtroom verdict, a definitive phone call, a tearful hug. It’s all in there
In one scene, Bilott is presented with a truckload of documents by DuPont, almost as a dare for him to identify a needle in an intimidating haystack. The montage that follows is hardly cinematic – one by one, Bilott sorts through the files, days turn into months, everything is methodically coded and by the end he develops the most water-tight case in the history of corporate fraud. There is simply no way for him to lose – it’s about if he’s even allowed to win at all. His efforts are purely industrial and unspectacular, but they can’t afford to be anything more. He keeps at it for years; we are made to deliberately feel the length of the film as a way of recognizing just how endless and unrewarding his task is. The narrative has multiple whistleblower/investigative/journalism movie endings – a Spotlight-style moment where his face lights up at the communal response to his case, a courtroom verdict, a definitive phone call, a tearful hug. It’s all in there. But each of them turn into new beginnings – in the most pessimistic sense of the term.
I couldn’t help but imagine Todd Haynes as Bilott in these scenes – sorting through research and papers and false hope and tons of data and real-life interviews – as a dreamer relearning the art of storytelling to highlight the unsentimental continuity of life. As an artist trying to restrain his lofty voice to present an unromanticized and tortured triumph. As a storyteller – as opposed to storymaker – who realizes that, in some cases, an efficient film is the best film possible.