In Todd Haynes’s latest, Mark Ruffalo plays a corporate defense lawyer who switches sides to defend a poisoned community.
Outrage mixes with despair in “Dark Waters,” an unsettling, slow-drip thriller about big business and the people who become its collateral damage. It’s a fictional take on a true, ghastly story about a synthetic polymer that was discovered by a chemist at DuPont, which branded it Teflon.
One of those seemingly magical substances of the modern age, Teflon was advertised as an “amazing new concept in cooking,” a 20th-century wonder meant to make life easier. “Choose a pan like you choose a man,” a British ad for a Teflon-coated pan suggested. “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
What was inside Teflon, anyway? In “Dark Waters,” the answer starts with cows that belong to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a West Virginia farmer engorged with rage, whose animals (and livelihood) are horribly and inexplicably dying on his pastoral-looking land. He has his suspicions about the cause, but the deaths are an enigma that becomes a murder mystery that, in turn, opens into a legal inquiry into corporate malfeasance and government accountability. Leading the charge is Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer in Cincinnati who defended chemical companies but became an unlikely crusader for the other side when he went up against DuPont.
Opening the story with a spooky prologue right out of the horror handbook, the director Todd Haynes makes it clear that here be monsters: It’s 1975 and a gaggle of young trespassers venture onto fenced-off property to go for a night swim. (The script is by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan.) Soon after the swimmers splash into the dark, oily waters (kids do the stupidest things), they are rousted by a booming male voice of authority. Given the horror-film setup, you half expect a creature from this dark lagoon to rise up or a chain-saw killer to buzz into view. Instead, men in a boat marked “containment” glide in, spraying something on the slicked surface.
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The time-hopping story then skips decades ahead to Wilbur and his brother (Jim Azelvandre) carrying a stash of videotapes into Taft, Bilott’s bustling firm. Wilbur has found Bilott through a connection to the lawyer’s grandmother (Marcia Dangerfield), who lives in West Virginia. It turns out that Bilott spent time as a child on Wilbur’s farm, which further deepens the men’s alliance. Bilott dives in, despite some unpersuasive reluctance. Defending small farmers isn’t in his portfolio and he has just been made a partner; but Bilott is a good guy, which the casting of the deeply empathetic Ruffalo has telegraphed from the moment his character appears.
What happens next is by turns tense and turgid, unsurprising and appalling. Bilott, with begrudging support of his firm (Tim Robbins plays his boss), confirms Wilbur’s worst fears: the local DuPont plant has been dumping toxic waste on land next to the Tennant farm.
In a queasy causal chain, the waste has seeped into the soil and migrated into the creek that flows through the farmer’s property and supplies water for his cows. This revelation leads Bilott to confront the DuPont powers that be and face down a larger nightmare filled with the misuse of science and the abuse of people.
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On paper, at least, this seems familiar territory for Haynes, whose art-house breakout, “Safe,” focuses on a middle-class woman affected by environmental illness. In that film, there is finally no immunity from the modern world (it isn’t a safe space), a moral that resurfaces with grisly horror in “Dark Waters.” Despite the environmental connection, though, the new movie is more conventional than Haynes’s usual work in its narrative structure and approach to the material. It’s exceedingly well executed and technically impeccable, with precisely shot (by Edward Lachman), near-abstract, dehumanized cityscapes washed in gray set against darkly shaded country landscapes that seem permanently untouched by sun.
Too bad then that as the years slip away and Bilott’s wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), continues to huff and puff about him and his work, the movie slides into banality. It’s disappointing that Haynes hasn’t solved the recurrent problem of the Wife, that irritating, waiting, nagging yet loving stereotype.
The story here, of course, is about Bilott’s fight against DuPont. (It’s based on a 2016 article by Nathaniel Rich that was published in The New York Times Magazine.) But every time Bilott goes home it feels like a waste of valuable storytelling and investigative time, which only plays into the noxious idea that men do the important work in the world while women — a periodic whistle-blowing Erin Brockovich notwithstanding — impatiently tap their feet.
You do feel Haynes’s touch now and again, particularly in the sense of menace that seeps into a crepuscular law office and in the everyday eeriness that suffuses outwardly ordinary homes that are anything but normal. Bilott’s investigation and the ensuing legal fight, which drags on for years, make it clear that the poison has leaked far beyond this stretch of West Virginia.
But at its strongest, the movie makes you see that the poison that is killing Wilbur’s cows and so many other living things isn’t simply a question of toxic chemicals. There is, Haynes suggests, a deeper malignancy that has spread across a country that allows some to kill and others simply to die.