DARK WATERS, the new film by Todd Haynes, begins like a monster movie. A group of teenagers drive through a hot summer night towards a gated lake in a remote part of town. As they dive in they remark how unseasonably warm it is, and we see their figures flailing in the murky water. It’s a moment that seems innocuous, but feels unbearably menacing at the same time. The kids are soon chased off by private security, who then continue taking samples from the lake. A massive factory belonging to the chemical giant DuPont looms in the background.
We don’t see the teenagers again. Their fate is left up to the imagination, fueled by the nightmarish scenario that unfolds over the next two hours. This is a monster movie, but the monster is not a tangible creature with many eyes and limbs, but capitalism itself.
Chronicling the real life decades long legal battle between Robert Bilott and DuPont, DARK WATERS is a riveting and deeply terrifying cry for justice in the face of American corporatism. Bilott, who began his career as a corporate defense attorney for companies like and including DuPont, worked in building many of the loopholes that corporations in America enjoy in keeping their unscrupulous tactics from ever being prosecuted. After a chance encounter with a family friend put him on an investigation over the death of farm animals in the early 90s, he soon found himself suing one of the most powerful companies in the world in the name of the working class people they had poisoned.
Haynes’ depiction of this picks up just as Bilott is approached with the plea for help. Cows are dying in massive numbers, each sick with tumors or worse. As Bilott digs deeper, the damage reveals itself far worse and more insidious than initially believed. The ensuing legal struggle becomes not just a plea for the truth, but the life’s work of the kind of man thought to be extinct within this rotten system. The true story of Teflon (a material found in every house on the planet) containing highly poisonous chemicals to this day is nightmare-fuel for decades onward.
In true horror movie fashion, the monster itself looms over every scene and Haynes depicts the passage of time as the loss of the countryside under newly built factories and corporate billboards. Subverting a beloved country song to sound absolutely menacing, Haynes transports us through West Virginia in an image of commercialized genocide where thousands, if not millions, are knowingly poisoned for a quick buck.
This is the kind of classy, smart and mature filmmaking that rarely gets time in theaters anymore. It’s elegantly told in a way that embraces the limitations of its genre and style, yet never feels stagey in presentation. Mark Ruffalo, already enjoying a great year with his revelatory performance I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, is on fire as Bilott. Fully leaning on the hangdog mannerisms he’s perfected over the years, Ruffalo is likable, charming, and fully believable as a modern day crusader for justice. It’s not as showy of a performance as his HBO dual turn, but there’s grace in his subtle bullheadedness.
His supporting cast includes reliably stellar names like Tim Robbins, Anne Hathaway, Victor Garber, Bill Camp, and a scenery chewing Bill Pullman. They’re all terrific in their parts, even as Hathaway suffers through a thoroughly underwritten role as The Wife of The Hero. It’s to her credit as one of the best actresses of her generation that she makes the thankless part shine. Nevertheless it’s still an odd stumble in an otherwise compelling film.
One of the things that Haynes does so well with this film (and there are a lot of them) is allowing everyone to look tired. Everyone foregoes their usual otherworldly imagery in place of dehydrated faces, sunken eyes, and slouched shoulders. The film makes no attempt at hiding the personal, physical, and emotional cost that even a morsel of truth comes at.
While elements of the film play out like a horror film (an animal attack feels right out of a Stephen King story), much of it is in the vein of 1970s conspiracy thrillers like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. I’m a big fan of this type of storytelling where our heroes spend long stretches of time just looking for clues, putting together evidence, and doing the legwork. It’s usually not cinematic in the least, but Haynes is such a gifted visual storyteller that he uses the empty spaces around Ruffalo to keep the images compelling.
Much of the film is framed looking downwards on Bilott as he sits on floors or hunches over desks in an attempt to make sense of what he’s finding. There’s even a moment where he points out the importance of reading comprehension, as the insanity of just how little is actually said in corporate statements is always by design. Another remarkable bit of staging is where he and Anne Hathaway realize just how alone they are in the corporate wilderness as the golden arches of a recognizable fast food chain loom over their heads like an industry standard sword of Damocles.
By the time the story reaches the courthouse (years and years after Bilott took the case), it feels like the world itself has changed into something unrecognizable. It’s here that Ruffalo and Haynes do some of their most compelling work, arguing that even as the system itself might triumph (in true Orwellian fashion), the act of resistance itself is worth the fight.
Initially released in 2019 and scheduled for a March 2020 release in Finland, DARK WATERS was pushed back all the way until now due to the COVID19 pandemic. It’s finally seeing a premiere this Friday, July 3. While things still aren’t back to normal and theaters won’t allow for full capacity, if you see one film this summer, make it this one.