Unfortunately, there is a wealth of true stories about poisoned water to put on the big screen. A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich followed ruthless lawyers tackling respective cases in Massachusetts and California. As these stories keep flooding the news, we’re bound to see a film about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan eventually. Until then, we have Dark Waters — a surprisingly, and sometimes frustratingly, straightforward drama from director Todd Haynes.
With this film, Mark Ruffalo takes a vacation from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to visit the DCU. Nope, not DC Comics — the DuPont Cinematic Universe. After experiencing the evils of the DuPont family in Foxcatcher, he exposes the corrupt practices of their chemical empire in Dark Waters.
Ruffalo stars as Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer who turns on the kind of chemical company he usually defends when a West Virginia farmer and family friend (Bill Camp in full-on Sling Blade mode) asks for his help. He claims his cows are dying due to chemical runoff from DuPont’s Dry Run Landfill. One of the film’s most striking shots is that of Bilott looking out at a field full of freshly buried cattle.
As Rob digs deeper, he starts to make DuPont uncomfortable. A particularly memorable scene finds him confronting DuPont executive Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) at a corporate banquet. Phil fires back, “Fuck you, hick,” which sums up the company’s attitude toward its workers and customers.
The details of the case are best discovered in the theater, but Rob basically finds out that DuPont had been knowingly poisoning the public for decades.
Although you may crave for more fiery confrontations like the one mentioned earlier, Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan wisely keep DuPont executives in the shadows. It makes more sense for them to be faceless drones rather than vivid villains. When Rob does get a chance to interact with them face to face, they shrug off his accusations and remain silent. This indifference to such clearly monstrous actions feels all too timely.
While these scenes are refreshingly uncinematic, other moments are jarringly contrived. For example, Rob’s glance at an I Spy Funny Teeth book segues into a flashback of a girl smiling at him and baring black teeth — a victim of poisoned water. And when a scientist calls Rob back for the first time in nearly a decade to apologize for “taking seven years to yield the test results,” you can’t help but cringe. Surely this information could’ve been revealed in a less clunky way.
When the film forces you to absorb complex science and legalese rather than spoon-feeding information through a children’s book, it soars. It’s bracing to see a mature, dialogue-driven drama that commands your complete attention.
Ruffalo gracefully carries the film as an engaging everyman. Anne Hathaway breathes some new life into the otherwise tired role of the concerned wife. Her most powerful scene is the one in which she tells Rob’s boss (Tim Robbins, sporting a beautiful head of lightning-white hair) to stop making him feel like a failure. It’s nice to see this kind of character being proactive rather than reactive, and Robbins is also a delight to watch.
Dark Waters tells an important story, just not in a way we haven’t seen before. Despite delivering a vital, relevant message about corruption, it ultimately falls flat as an entertaining but safe Oscar-bait drama.