In the 1960s reports began to surface that smoking was bad for our health, a revelation that seemed to be the first nail in the coffin for the smoking industry. Today, people are still smoking and an industry that relies on new customers finds even more nefarious ways to convince people to smoke, or vape, the new trendy form of ‘not smoking’. This kind of morally corrupt business practices are expected from the tobacco industry but to be under threat from something as simple as a frying pan and a company supposedly making lives easier and safer, that’s something truly horrifying.
When lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is approached by a family friend Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) to look into the deaths of hundreds of his livestock, he finds himself locking horns with chemical giant Dupont over accidental contamination of the local water supply. What he learns goes deeper than a simple accident and further than Wilbur’s farm, with ramifications on a global scale.
It is easy to take for granted the fact that Dark Waters is a true story, it seems so outlandish, so implausible. The criminality of it all is staggering. The story demands shout from the rooftops levels of pontification. Todd Haynes, smartly goes the other way. Everything in Dark Waters is subdued, from peoples outrage to the quiet stark visuals of a mass grave of cows. The notion that this is wrong doesn’t need to be propagated, it just is.
The simplicity of this David v Goliath tale isn’t in the facts but in how its various players bend and break over the space of an almost two-decade story. Not only does Ruffalo’s kind, socially boisterous lead becomes introverted and afraid but Camp’s Wilbur, despite his closed off, insolent nature, is sapped of all his hope and faith in a system he thinks will save him. Both are performances that demand attention but Camp steals what little screen time he is afforded in a role that demands pity even if Wilbur himself, even in his darker moments, is never pitiful.
The irony here is a film about a global medical crisis is surreptitiously life-affirming in how these people still maintain a sense of belief in the inherent good of people. Haynes points out the hypocrisy gleefully, in that for something so heinous to take place, people had to idly sit by and put their trust in a company out to make a profit, not protect people. Never alluding to culpability or blame, the colour palette here implies a country rotting, a bleak festering corruption in not only the polluted land but in the government that both allowed it and fails to react to it.
Produced by the company behind Spotlight, Dark Waters is much in the same way, heavy on information, more than enough to get confused but here it feels quantity is just as important as quality. Haynes fills his film with facts and figures and only some of them stick but the nature of his information is startling to the point where whatever does land, makes one hell of an impact. Linking his plot to ‘harmless’ household items, Dark Waters toys with your paranoia and the idea of safety in such a way that it feels almost predatory.
The script feeds off the different ways lives are ruined, the emotional, physical and psychological toll it takes on Bilott’s plaintiffs, as well as Bilott himself. The real shock, however, comes from how Haynes portrays Dupont, the honourable giant. Shots of local towns devoted to the company that provides jobs, security and the things they cook with. This duality only deepens a betrayal that over the course of the film becomes evidently avoidable. The infighting between neighbours and communities it causes, an acceptable cost of doing business.
Even Bilott comes away from his own story dirty, an absentee husband to wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) and their kids, a negligible presence as his pursuit of answers, of a little piece of justice, corrodes his work-life balance. Hathaway plays a different kind of strength here to Ruffalo’s, a solid, steady hand as opposed to the increasingly emotional and invested one Rob develops. Their double act gives colour to an already well-developed picture.
What boils down to a single case proves to be far-reaching, compelling and utterly galling but what makes this all so painfully important is how it paints a world where our safety isn’t anyone’s concern, one where families can live happy lives, just as long as it doesn’t impact profits. Problem is, that’s this world.