Bill Camp and Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters (Photo: Focus Features)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Todd Haynes
STARS Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway
(For a look at The 10 Best & 10 Worst Films of 2019, go here.)
“In 2014, Mark Ruffalo suffered at the hands of DuPont. Now, it’s HIS turn.”
No, no, Dark Waters isn’t actually a sequel to Foxcatcher, even though the above would have made a captivating poster tagline for the new film. But it is amusing to note that it’s the second time Ruffalo has dallied with DuPont in a fact-based tale. In 2014’s Foxcatcher (reviewed here), Ruffalo’s character of Dave Schultz, a former Olympic gold medalist, fell victim to John du Pont (Steve Carell), a member of the filthy-rich family that birthed the DuPont chemical company back at the start of the 19th century. In Dark Waters, it’s now Ruffalo’s character of corporate lawyer Robert Bilott who puts the screws on the oilier-than-thou conglomerate, an outfit that’s as evil as the day is long.
In tackling Bilott, Ruffalo (also credited as a co-producer) displays the same sort of head-down earnestness that he brought to his role as newspaperman Michael Rezendes in Spotlight. Here, the character is a lawyer who works for a firm known for defending major conglomerates, including DuPont. But after a visit from Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer who knows Bilott’s grandmother back in his West Virginia hometown, Bilott locates his long-dormant compassion. Soon, he finds himself representing Tennant and all the other little people who are being poisoned by DuPont’s environmental irresponsibility.
Naturally, it’s an uphill battle from the start, as DuPont does everything it can to disrupt his sleuthing. And, just as naturally, many of his colleagues object to his crusade against one of their biggest clients, although, to his vast credit, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), a senior partner at the firm and thus Bilott’s boss, unexpectedly throws his support behind the embattled attorney. Matters are even more difficult at home, as Bilott’s wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway), a former attorney who gave up her career to raise the kids, is annoyed at how much time her husband devotes to the case (nearly 20 years!) and alarmed at how his commitment is destroying his health.
There isn’t much in this David and Goliath story that we haven’t seen in numerous earlier films, from Norma Rae to Erin Brockovich. But working from a New York Times Magazine article (“The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich), scripters Matthew Michael Carnahan (co-writer of last month’s forgettable 21 Bridges) and Mario Correa make sure to keep the righteous indignation bubbling on the surface and the infuriating corporate malfeasance itching under the skin. The result is yet another movie (and, when done right, we can never have too many) that will leave the viewer angry but alert.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Dark Waters is that it’s directed by Todd Haynes, the director behind 2015’s Carol (one of the 10 best films of its year; go here) and 2002’s Far from Heaven (one of the 10 best films of its decade; go here). Many might view this credit as a for-hire assignment for Haynes and bemoan the lack of the theatrical flourishes, technical wizardry, and deeply personal convictions usually associated with his movies. But while the more conventional structure of Dark Waters might indeed be far from heavenly, it suits a morality tale as cut-and-dry as this one.