There’s something wrong with the land in West Virginia, and Mark Ruffalo is on the case. That’s the essence of “Dark Waters,” an urgent and respectable dramatization of corporate environmental defense attorney Rob Bilott’s saga as he takes on the Dupont corporation for dumping toxic waste. Directed by Todd Haynes as a slow-burn accumulation of speechifying and paranoid research, “Dark Waters” rambles through Bilott’s dreary detective work as he exposes an environmental hazard with the potential to impact the entire planet.
A didactic, sometimes listless thriller that drags at just over two hours, “Dark Waters” marks the most conventional directing effort in Haynes’ career. Nevertheless, the central concerns of Ruffalo’s passion project (he also produced) ensure a gravitas throughout that grounds the drama in profound concerns. Wearing a frozen scowl as he zips from damaged farmland to his ambivalent Cincinnati law firm, Ruffalo’s troubled protagonist stops just shy of breaking the fourth wall and lecturing to the audience as he learns how to take on the Man. At the same time, it’s hard not to get caught up in his crusade, and feel the sting whenever it seems like a lost cause.
As legal thrillers go, “Dark Waters” fits snugly into a familiar genre. Tapping into everything from “All the President’s Men” and “The Insider” (with a touch of “Spotlight” and “Erin Brockovich” for good measure), “Dark Waters” follows Bilot through the evolution of his interests in the case against DuPont, a company that his own firm represents. That central conflict — and Bilott’s internal challenges reconciling his country roots with big-city ambitions — injects “Dark Waters” with palpable intrigue, despite the preachiness that bleeds into the material throughout.
Mario Correa’s screenplay adapts an article by reporter Nathaniel Rich from The New York Times magazine, and the headline of that 2016 story epitomizes the movie’s arc: “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” Bilott is on the verge of making partner at his firm and becoming a new father when he hears from Parkersburg farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp, in a frantic turn) about his dying cows, and suspicions that the nearby plant was to blame. In Rich’s article, Bilott first hears from Tennant by phone, but “Dark Waters” finds the rumpled figure barging into Bilot’s firm, recalling his family roots in the area. It’s a tight narrative contrivance that underscores the conflict at hand, as Bilott contends with dueling allegiances as his stable world unravels.
Since Bilott’s firm represents a range of corporate clients, his decision to take on DuPont forces continuing showdowns with his boss (Tim Robbins, stern and troubled) as well as the DuPont suits that consider Bilott and his peers as friendlies. These stagy showdowns are undercut by the lawyer’s eerie visits to Tennant’s farmland, where Haynes’ regular cinematographer Ed Lachman’s inky palette tinges the green landscapes with a shadowy aura bordering on sci-fi; similarly, the movie develops a disquieting atmosphere around Bilott’s lonely hours spent combing through covert documents as he gets closer to the truth of DuPont’s cover-up.
It’s here that “Dark Waters” gets closer to injecting the drama with intimate concerns: When Bilott finally arrives at the essence of his investigation, uncovering the toxic chemical in Teflon products that have infiltrated American households, he’s tasked with explaining the situation to his pregnant wife (Anne Hathaway). And while the actress has been saddled with a thankless supporting role, the movie ventures into taut psychological uneasiness as Bilott grapples with the magnitude of his revelations.
While Ruffalo overplays the character’s panic-stricken mindset, Haynes reins it in, pitching the drama into Bilott’s disoriented headspace as his contradictory allegiances collapse into chaos and he finds himself increasingly isolated from the world around him. There’s an undeniable galvanizing effect to the movie’s closing passages, as Bilott tunnels through the backlash and career setbacks to forge a new battle that continues to this day.
Yet “Dark Waters” sticks to a level of naturalistic restraint that often flattens its material into rote dramaturgy rather than intensifying its concerns. Haynes may not be the most obvious match for this sort of well-intentioned agitprop, but nearly 30 years ago, “Poison” tackled the AIDS crisis and homophobia through a riveting allegorical lens. By those standards, “Dark Waters” is strictly by the book, an extension of the concerns recapped in the 2018 Teflon documentary “The Devil We Know” and others.
At the same time, Haynes and Ruffalo have conspired to inject their project with a covert non-fiction component, as end credits reveal multiple characters portrayed by their real-life counterparts, including a grown man disfigured at birth due to toxic waste. It’s a well-intentioned device, but winds up serving as a reminder that the truth is far more upsetting than any fictionalized take.
Still, the movie mines genuine substance from Bilott’s ceaseless determination against daunting odds, a quest that finds the man returning again and again to the courtroom. (“You again,” one judge sighs.) As a platform for Bilott’s efforts and why they deserve a national profile, the movie has a sincere sense of purpose. It’s a 20-year-old drama that extends into the present, and as environmental concerns continue to escalate, it couldn’t feel more contemporary. While “Dark Waters” chronicles the evolution of an activist, its most effective moment comes with a closing implication that its story has just begun.
Focus Features will open “Dark Waters” in theaters on Friday, November 22.