REVIEW: ‘Dark Waters’ (2020) Ruffalo Shines in Todd Haynes’ Bleak Legal Drama

Rating: 4 out of 4.

“A timely and frightening message”

When Dark Waters ended, text appeared on the screen telling me I was contaminated with the very chemical the film explores. Similar to how HBO’s Chernobyl exposed the lies behind its true story to devastating effect, Dark Waters gets underneath the skin and makes your blood boil. With a timely and frightening message, this investigative drama from director Todd Haynes will leave you furious.

Mark Ruffalo is brilliantly understated as Robert Bilott, the real-life corporate defence attorney who begins the film helping pharmaceutical companies like DuPont. By the end of this film, he has had to sacrifice everything to single-handedly take DuPont down. Ruffalo is great in these subdued roles, making it easy for the audience to latch onto his underdog plight. In Spotlight, he made watching journalists sweat away in their offices compelling enough to win best picture. He had a similarly effective role in Fincher’s Zodiac. The main factor in all of these performances is the way he grounds the character, never approaching theatrics. Ruffalo has no heroic outbursts in Dark Waters, no fist-pumping moments, it barely even looks like acting – he completely disappears into the tired, deeply stressed brow of Robert Bilott, a man with the weight of an entire city on his shoulders.

He’s joined by serviceable turns from Tim Robbins as his supportive but reluctant boss, and Anne Hathaway as his stay-at-home wife, Sarah. On the surface, both these actors give louder performances than Ruffalo, having the scenes that allow them to do this, but none of their moments stay with you in the way that Billot’s dogged, dirty-work determination does. Scenes that cast him in the centre of a fortress of paperwork speak louder than words, and it’s often the silence in Dark Waters that creates its unsettling impact. A ghoulish wide frame depicting the burial mounds of hundreds of cows feels like it belongs in a horror film, and in a way Dark Waters is exactly this.

After initially dismissing him, a personal link leads Bilott to helping farmer Wilbur Tennant (a fantastic Bill Camp) who’s distressed by the unnatural death of 190 of his cows. He believes DuPont are responsible, claiming the nearby stream has been contaminated by the dumping of waste chemicals. His cows have tumours the size of footballs and the residents of West Virginia have black teeth. Something is very wrong. Billet spends the next fifteen years investigating this, uncovering a despairing cover-up and thousands of cancer-ridden citizens that have no idea they’re being poisoned.

Haynes’ direction is astute but rather muted, when coming off the back of Carol and Wonderstruck. This restraint works in the film’s favour: too much and you lose the power of the true story, too little and the film becomes a slog. Haynes and the script from Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan respect the people the film is honouring and allow the facts to take centre stage. When the credits roll it’s impossible not to feel maddened by the blood-money world we live in.

As a film, Dark Waters is good; it’s well-made, well-acted, beautifully shot and supported by a score that shifts between delicate melody and moody paranoia. It’s even better as a damnation of one of America’s biggest and shamefully irresponsible companies and the influence these corporations have on everything in our lives. The chemicals that are ingrained into our blood because of the exploits of DuPont and their production of Teflon, isn’t the most troubling thing about Bilott’s story – it’s that you know there are hundreds of cases like DuPont that aren’t being talked about.

The handling of all the paperwork is delicately balanced with a sense of dread permeating throughout the film. Re-joining Haynes from Carol, cinematographer Edward Lachman swaps romance for horror as he creates a radiative sense of unease in everything we see. The environment is cast in a washed-out bluish hue that looks as if all the life has been drained from it, and in a sense, it has: the trees are dead, the water supply poisoned, the animals limp around with deformities and madness in their eyes. It’s undeniably effective, which makes it unfortunate that this sort of filmmaking rarely makes a splash on the simple basis of not being showy.

There’s a point in the film where his research goes inexplicably unanswered for seven years and the silence is deafening. You can imagine what the people must have felt like, both the sick and Bilett himself, abandoned and helpless against the power of big corporations. Ruffalo’s dogged resilience pays off in the end, and the narrative structure is predictable down to its title cards cueing each small progression, but that’s no slight on the film. Incremental steps forward are what incredible investigative stories are all about. In-between its seedy lines of corporate horror and public tragedy is a film about the power and importance of curiosity. More than ever, it’s important that we question everything in our lives and how things are made. Unless people like Bilett show us, how can anybody really know what’s in our homes and bodies? And now that I’ve seen the film, here is my one and only recommendation: cast iron pans are the only way to go.

While formulaic – and this will likely hold it back – Haynes’ insistence on making sure nobody forgets the sinister negligence of DuPont is the film’s biggest triumph and hopefully its existence fuels dozens more cases like it. Dark Waters is a little too pedestrian to catapult it into greatness, but it has strong performances and an even louder message. If nothing else, it will make you pause the next time you have a glass of water.

Director: Todd Haynes

Producers: Mark Ruffalo, Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman

Release Date: 2020

Featured image courtesy of Focus Features