With a style and pace that feels completely outside of the current century, ‘Dark Waters’ is a dark and upsetting true story
For a number of decades, true stories of crusaders attempting to fight industry abuse were prominent in Hollywood. Sally Field was in Norma Rae, playing a union organizer at a textile firm. Meryl Streep starred in Mike Nichols’s Silkwood, as a whistleblower at a nuclear plant. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia adapts the real story of a gay lawyer (Tom Hanks) fired for being HIV+ and hiring a lawyer (Denzel Washington) to defend him. Russell Crowe was in Michael Mann’s The Insider, talking about lying in the tobacco industry. Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich marked an endpoint for this kind of story, with Julia Roberts saving a California community from poisoning by the local utility industries.
Movies like these (fictional and otherwise) are all about, in broad strokes, people fighting against all odds to save others. Yet after 2000, these films became rarer. Stories about small-scale victories were replaced by the larger and louder superhero, war, and/or action films. Justice went from something battled for in newspaper columns and courtrooms to something settled with guns and fists. But every so often a film like Dark Waters comes along.
Todd Haynes is one of the kings of the throwback, with his Douglas Sirk-adjacent Far From Heaven and his 1950s remake Mildred Pierce. Now he throws back to the period in which he started his career, the 1990s. Dark Waters sets itself predominantly in the 1990s and feels like it could have been made then, too. It has all the pieces of that decade’s “Important Movie” style, some for the better and some for the worse.
After an opening in the 1970s that shows the actual dumping of chemicals in the water, the story jumps forward to 1998 Cincinnati, where the Taft Law firm’s Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) meets with a farmer from West Virginia who wants to meet with him. Bilott works as a defender for chemical companies, but farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) wants him to prosecute DuPont Chemical Company for poisoning his farm. Over a hundred cows have died, and even people are getting sick. Yet DuPont claims nothing has happened. Bilott decides that, out of the goodness of his heart, he will look into Tennant’s claims. But then as time goes by, Bilott realizes that the mystery goes far deeper than Tennant had ever expected, tying into products that are in every kitchen in America.
The film is haunting, pointing out that there are chemicals in products that people use every day. But it also feels like a classic superhero story. Bilott fights against bad people for honor and justice, embodied by a very composed and careful Ruffalo. After an hour the film feels like it could end, but then DuPont makes things even worse. Even when he gets knocked down, Bilott keeps fighting. Bilott has sidekicks, such as Bill Pullman as a Foghorn Leghorn-sounding lawyer. He has a mentor, played by a great Tim Robbins. He has disbelievers, including William Jackson Harper as another lawyer at his firm or Victor Garber’s antagonist. And in a very throwback role, there is Anne Hathaway as “Lady Who Is Married to the Great Man Who Is Solving X All By Himself.”
Dark Waters isn’t exactly an “enjoyable” film, but it is informative and looks better than almost any film this year. Haynes is the director of Carol, and this has a similar look. Cinematographer Ed Lachman throws the film into deep blues and yellows, a visual moral compass. But for every beautiful shot or performance, there is a “Take Me Home, Country Road” needle drop, and a score sting that feels like it is warning for great danger. For every moment where Mark Ruffalo has a break down in his car, there is a scene where Anne Hathaway is pregnant and tells her husband he is a bad dad. It is almost like the film has an equal-and-opposite reaction, one step forward for cinema and one step back into the past.
Dark Waters is an intentionally dated film, a throwback to a Hollywood that barely exists anymore. It is heartfelt and sincere in all the best ways. Where it stumbles, it feels almost intentional. But more importantly, it feels (much like Ford V Ferrari) a film that harkens back to the kinds of film that we just don’t see anymore. Hopefully, that will change someday soon.
Dark Waters is in theaters on November 22nd. It stars Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, and Bill Pullman. Directed by Todd Haynes.