Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters,” about the prolonged (and ongoing) legal fight to uncover the environmental damage of cancer-inducing “forever chemicals” and hold their corporate makers accountable, is a sober and ominous docudrama. On its surface, it’s an unspectacular one. Its lead character, a corporate defense attorney played by Mark Ruffalo, is no Erin Brockovich. The movie, itself, is gray and murky like the toxic West Virginia waters that provide the film’s first gloomy sense of trouble.
But just the same, “Dark Waters” will in its modest, steadfast way make your blood boil. And that will do.
Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) is a West Virginia native and Cincinnati attorney for a large law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, with a specialty in defending chemical companies. Just after he’s made a partner, a West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) turns up in his office barking about his dead cattle and the DuPont plant next door. He dumps a box of VHS tapes at Bilott’s feet.
It’s only the mention of Bilott’s grandmother that gives him pause. Bilott’s colleague Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) overhears the encounter but assures Bilott discretion. “You can be from West Virginia, Rob. I won’t tell anyone.”
Bilott is accustomed to representing the corporate side of such disputes, but he’s moved by Tennant’s case. He has warm memories of visiting the farms in the area as a child and milking cows. And Tennant, gruff and furious, is hard to ignore. Nearly all 200 of his cows have suffered enlarged organs and other deformities. A field of his is littered with graves like a battlefield. A nearby creek runs from a DuPont landfill.
Bilott takes the case over the concerns of his colleagues. The firm would prefer to have DuPont as a client, not a foe. Bilott is himself friendly with DuPont lawyers, too. At first, he’s just trying to do a favor for a family friend.
But the scope of the case grows exponentially. Bilott, whose story was chronicled in an engrossing and detailed 2016 New York Times story by Nathaniel Rich, goes from a 1999 lawsuit on behalf of Tennant to a 2001 class action involving several West Virginia communities. Through methodical research and investigation, he traces the pollution affecting Tennant’s fame to DuPont’s use of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid.
The substance, which DuPont began using in 1951 by purchasing it from 3M, is used in Teflon for things like non-stick frying pans and for firefighting foam. It was created during the Manhattan Project but by now, it’s in all of us. Virtually every human and animal has traces of it in their system, whether it came through tap water or an umbilical cord. It‘s called a “forever chemical” because it never breaks down and can build up in the blood and organs. DuPont dumped thousands of pounds of PFOA in the Ohio River.
Other companies, along with the Defense Department, have contributed to their spread. But DuPont was at the vanguard of their usage (with a reported annual profit of $1 billion for PFOA-related products) and had been studying its worrisome effects on its own workers for decades — long before the Environmental Protection Agency knew of its risks.
“Dark Waters,” made relatively quickly by Hollywood standards, is the backstory on a legal drama that’s still unfolding, with ongoing debate in Congress and at the EPA on setting a national drinking-water limit. Critics, including the makers of “Dark Waters,” believe it’s taking much too long.
It’s perhaps a familiar script: good cause, inspirational movie. “Dark Waters” distinguishes itself, however, in intricately following the story of a toxic substance, from a West Virginia backwater to ubiquity. It’s not the kind of film typical of Haynes, whose artful dramas (“Carol,” “Far From Heaven”) usually dig less into headlines than the fluidity of identity and the tragedies of societal convention.
But those qualities are also what make Haynes a natural fit for “Dark Waters.”
Here, he has sucked much of the Hollywood out of the social-justice drama, while leaving certain touchstones. Supporting players like Anne Hathaway (as Sarah Bilott, Rob’s wife) and Robbins get the requisite moments befitting an “important” movie. Ruffalo, too, is already clearly adept at portraying the growth of obsession (“Spotlight,” “Zodiac”). He has even once before been part of a film critical of DuPont, albeit less directly. In Bennett Miller’s 2014 real-life crime drama “Foxcatcher,” Ruffalo played the man, Dave Schultz, killed by a DuPont heir, John du Pont.
Where Haynes excels is in teasing out the personal and professional connections that mingle throughout. When Bilott grows aggressive in the investigation into DuPont, he’s breaking with decorum. He’s part of the good-old-boy network that works to protect companies like DuPont. In “Dark Waters,” arguments happen at fancy attorney banquets, and boardroom decisions alter innocent human lives.
It can seem like there are too many corporate exposes. While they could use some new angles and perhaps fewer lawyer protagonists, I suspect that’s not the problem. “Dark Waters” plays like a “Chernobyl” for America. Unfortunately, we probably need a lot more of these.
What “Dark Waters” • Three stars out of four • Run time 2:06 • Rating PG-13 • Content Thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language • Opening Wednesday