Dark Waters

Bill Camp (left) as "Wilbur Tennant" and Mark Ruffalo (right) as "Robert Bilott" in director Todd Haynes' DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

Another true story, as good as the one about Richard Jewell, told so brilliantly by Clint Eastwood in my most recently reviewed movie.  But director Todd Haynes doesn’t do as good a job telling his story as Clint did in Richard Jewell.  To be fair, this is probably because it’s such a long, complex story with a heck of a lot of ground to be covered.     

Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a lawyer working for a firm that specializes in defending corporations against lawsuits.  He comes from Parkersburg, West Virginia, and is teased by his Big End of Town colleagues about coming from a hillbilly backwater.  That backwater happens to be where DuPont Chemicals has a manufacturing plant which sustains the town’s economy.  When his grandmother back home sends a farmer neighbor to see him about the truly alarming disease and death rate among his cows, Bilott is at first unwilling to listen to this rough angry bloke, protesting that it’s not his field, but eventually he goes to check it out as a favour to Grandma.  What he finds, in short, is that DuPont has been dumping its waste for decades, poisoning the land, the animals and the people.  And of course, lying about it. 

Being a principled man he takes on the case immediately.  The townsfolk of Parkersburg, their livelihoods at stake, are suspicious of him.  His corporate clients are downright hostile, and the once good-natured teasing turns pretty nasty at times.  His law firm has misgivings too.  The stress threatens his career, his health and his marriage.  But luckily for Bilott the senior partner (played by Tim Robbins) eventually summons up enough decency to support him.  So, eventually, does his wife (Anne Hathaway). 

Anne Hathaway and Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters

Director Haynes is patient with his storytelling but thanks to the obstructionism and sheer bloody-mindedness of DuPont there are decades of skullduggery to be exposed here and it does take a toll on the narrative pace.  Haynes tries to liven up proceedings with human interest, as in repeated scenes of the wife saying:  It’s the case or me!  which look and feel a bit forced, not to mention being a standard Hollywood cliché. 

Bucky Bailey, real-life DuPont victim who appears in the movie

There’s also a problem with comprehensibility of dialogue.  In a story like this it is surely important to get the characters right, and Haynes has creditably cast some of the real Parkersburg people in incidental scenes. 

Unfortunately the casual attitude to reproducing dialogue extends at times to the main characters.  I wouldn’t want a return to the artificial, theatrical delivery of a Katharine Hepburn, but in at least one scene of pillow-talk between husband Ruffalo and wife Hathaway, I couldn’t understand a word she said!

Mark Ruffalo is excellent in the lead.  Both he and Tim Robbins would have relished their roles as they are both known for their social justice awareness.    

Still, it’s a powerful movie telling an important story.  But beware:  you may find yourself chucking out all your Teflon-coated cookware when you get home.