In many ways, “Dark Waters” feels little like the work of director Todd Haynes.
Artfully made but not artsy in the way his films — “Far From Heaven,” “Carol” and “Wonderstruck,” to name a few — typically are, “Dark Waters” eschews metaphorical storytelling in favor of a straightforward, based-on-real-events narrative.
However, “Dark Waters” — about a Cincinnati lawyer’s crusade against the DuPont chemical company, which he and his clients blame for widespread health issues tied to a toxic chemical used to make Teflon — boasts the level of quality you associate with Haynes.
“Dark Waters” may be closer in spirit to 2000 Steven Soderbergh drama “Erin Brockovich” than anything Haynes has done to date, but it nonetheless ranks up their with his best works.
And it benefits from an impassioned performance from the dependable Mark Ruffalo, portraying the lawyer, Rob Bilott.
(Ruffalo is a producer on the film, and Haynes admits in the movie’s production notes that “several talented directors might come to mind” for it but that “for some inexplicable reason, Mark had thought of me.” Haynes also refers to Ruffalo bringing the film to him — far into its development process — “a gift.”)
Bilott, whose firm typically defended chemical companies such as the behemoth DuPont, switched sides and sued the company. “Dark Waters,” penned by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, is based largely on 2016 New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” by Nathaniel Rich.
While “Dark Waters” opens with a brief scene set in Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1975, its story begins in earnest in late 1990s Cincinnati. Ruffalo’s Rob, recently made partner at his firm, is pulled out of a meeting when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) — a Parkersburg farmer who’s friends with one of Rob’s family members — shows up to see him.
The angry farmer blames a nearby DuPont landfill for the deaths of many of his cows and has brought a box of video tapes he believes helps make his case. Rob isn’t really interested in Wilbur’s problems — and certainly not in his tapes — and he gives the man a polite brush-off when his boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), comes to see what’s holding him up.
“You can be from West Virginia, Rob,” Tom teases him on the way back to the conference room. “I don’t tell anyone.”
However, Rob soon takes a drive to Parkersburg, where he is swayed by Wilbur, who shows him seemingly chemical-white stones in his creek and an area where nearly 200 cows lived before their deaths.“You tell me nothing’s wrong here!” bellows Wilbur, fed up with getting nowhere with not just DuPont but also the Environmental Protection Agency.
With Tom’s very tepid blessing, Rob dips his toes into the potentially dangerous DuPont waters, first seeking a possible answer via the company’s paperwork. Of course, that toe-dipping eventually leads to the deepest of dives for Rob, with resistance coming not just from the powerful DuPont but, understandably, from some of his own partners.
At the heart of the matter is the chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, referred to as PFOA and other names. Used to make near-ubiquitous aforementioned nonstick coating for cookware and more, it seemingly is to blame for health problems experienced by DuPont employees and others — and Rob discovers the company has known for decades that it is apparently extremely dangerous.
“Dark Waters” dramatizes the many years Bilott has spent on his legal crusade. In the film, we see this seemingly unwinnable fight tax not just Rob’s marriage to Sarah (Anne Hathaway) but also his health.
While Haynes may not have seemed like an obvious choice for the film, Ruffalo (“Spotlight,” “Avengers: Endgame”) is an obvious fit for the role, his everyman qualities making him easy both to relate to and to root for as Rob.
Although Robbins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Castle Rock”) and Hathaway (“Ocean’s 8,” “The Intern”)” are fine, the other standouts in “Dark Waters” are Camp (“The Night Of,” “Joker”) and Bill Pullman (“The Sinner, “Independence Day: Resurgence”), as Harry Dietzler, a colorful Parkersburg lawyer who eventually joins the fray and brings a little welcome late-game levity to the proceedings.
Behind the camera, Haynes is wonderfully steady, giving “Dark Waters” enough juice to keep it interesting and engaging but not overdoing it. While he expressed that surprise Ruffalo brought him the project, he says he has long loved whistleblower films such as “All the Presidents Men” and “The Insider,” and it shows.
Thanks in part to Edward Lachman, the film’s director of photography and a regular Haynes collaborator, “Dark Waters” has this naturalistic but murky look, like it may have been made decades earlier. If you’re looking for flash, keep searching — this one’s all about the story.
While it may bog down just a bit here and there, “Dark Waters” is very engrossing stuff, a film that sheds light on a story too many of us may have ignored.
You’ll just have to forgive Haynes, Ruffalo and company if you feel the need to throw away your favorite frying pan after seeing it.
“Dark Waters” is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language. Runtime: 2 hours, 6 minutes.