Dark Waters is in the tradition of movies where the common man, or woman, has to fight powerful forces. The viewer will quickly think back to movies like Silkwood, The Insider, and Erin Brockovich. Surprisingly, the movie that bears the strongest resemblance to Dark Waters is All The President’s Men. This movie is all about a man (Marc who is part of the system, learning the truth about things he never dreamed of, slowly losing his faith in the “company line”, the mythologies of his life, and deciding to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. If this seems like familiar dramatic territory, it is, but well-told.
Todd Haynes, the director of Dark Waters, has built a solid pedigree of both energetically experimental biopics like I’m Not There and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and finely-drawn, subtle period pieces like Carol and Far From Heaven. When watching a Haynes movie, you always feel as if you are in capable hands, the sure guidance of an expert storyteller. No matter how great the issue at-hand or how big the star he’s examining, there is always a feeling that Haynes is ultimately most interested in the lives and worlds of his characters. In Dark Waters, his focus is on lawyer Robert Bilott, as well as countless Americans poisoned by Dupont.
Mark Ruffalo plays Bilott as almost a cipher. He’s the type of lawyer who worked his way up the career ladder defending corporations. His life is humming along without a hitch, having just achieved a partner position at his firm, with a new baby and beautiful, intelligent wife (Anne Hathaway) at home. Bilott is the embodiment of normal and boring. He wears his suit everyday. He goes to church. He drives a modest car. He keeps his head down, works hard, and follows the rules. Ruffalo seems to almost draw into his own skin, playing Bilott as a meek company man.
When he begins to slowly uncover the horrors of what Dupont is inflicting on small-town America, Ruffalo doesn’t approach Bilott’s change in a flashy way. A different director and actor might be tempted to show Bilott, by the end, as a changed man, brash, loud, angry. Instead, the changes in Ruffalo are inexorable, below the surface, eating him away like cancer. This is no accident. As the movie progresses, the overall arc is to show the way the corruption has eaten away at everything and everyone, most importantly the people. Bilott and Haynes never forgets about the real people and this is where Dark Waters goes from being an effective whistle-blower drama to a great movie.
The entire investigation into Dupont is launched as a farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), walks into Bilott’s firm with claims of his groundwater and livestock being poisoned. In many movies Tennant would be a generic character, just entering to launch the story, but we and Bilott return to Tennant again and again. We, like Bilott, are never allowed to forget about the real people who are poisoned. This happens over and over in the movie. At one point we see two girls riding their bikes in the town, only to rediscover their importance later. We find out about a child who was born with defects due to water contamination, but instead of a one-off tragic detail, we return to him over and over. There is a cumulative effect on the viewer and Bilott as each new real life weighs down on him, hardening his efforts.
The majority of the movie follows Bilott’s efforts to slowly prove Dupont’s guilt. There is no mystery, no courtroom fireworks. The genius of this tale is the very thing that might bore or turn some viewers off; namely, it’s tenacity. This movie is interested in the hard, detailed work of a common man doing his damndest to bring down a corporate giant. At one point, Bilott wins a key court challenge and is granted full discovery from Dupont. What he gets is a room full of documents. Bilott rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. Instead of a dramatic court scene where some corporate shill yells the equivalent of “you can’t handle the truth,” Dark Waters shows Bilott calmly presenting 30 years worth of documents to a corporate representative in a quiet, darkened room.
The acting is almost universally excellent in Dark Waters. Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham all give solid efforts. The only performance that doesn’t quite ring true is Hathaway’s. She plays Bilott’s wife a bit too heated, chewing the scenery far too much for a quiet movie like this. Every time she acted with a capital “a,” it pulled me out of the movie.
Finally, in many movies like this that are “ripped from the headlines” or based on “real events” the director will give us photos of the actual people as the credits roll. Haynes does a version of this that is both amazing and very satisfying. I won’t spoil it, because it’s a great cap to a solid, highly effective piece of old-school movie-making.
Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars.