Culture

Film

‘Dark Waters’ runs deep

By Isabella Trimboli
Mark Ruffalo is at his understated best in Todd Haynes’ take on this real-life environmental legal drama

Dark Waters. © Focus Features / Storyteller Distribution

The legal drama – synonymous with stuffy courtrooms, suits and stirring speeches – may seem a constricting space for director Todd Haynes, known for his luxuriant, fluid films. But in Dark Waters, his take on the Hollywood formula, it’s the more brutal images that linger: bloated tumours wrapped in foil, a graveyard of dead cows, deformed limbs, and a child’s smile full of rotten teeth.

Dark Waters opens in 1975, with a group of teenagers scaling a fence and skinny-dipping into a frothy, warm river in the dead of night, their swim cut short by two workers on a boat spraying something sinister into the murky depths. It’s an eerie harbinger of what will soon bubble to the surface. The film then jumps to 1998, where we meet lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a newly minted partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, a corporate law firm that defends chemical companies, including DuPont. This is up-ended when Bilott is visited in his office by the gruff, exasperated West Virginian farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who believes the chemical giant’s waste has been contaminating his property, causing 190 of his cows to die.

After being given the acquiescing go-ahead from his boss (a towering Tim Robbins) Bilott takes on the Tennant case, and discovers that DuPont has knowingly been dumping tonnes of unregulated perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in Parkersburg, poisoning the water supplies for decades. The chemical, now linked to cancers and birth defects, is also used in the production of Teflon found in thousands of products, from non-stick pans (“Your chores just got easier!” cheerily remarks a magazine ad for Teflon cookware in the film) to waterproof clothing.

This discovery spirals into a gruelling legal battle spanning some 20 years, culminating in a class action lawsuit on behalf of 70,000 affected residents. Haynes zeros in on the tiresome process, with shots hovering over the walls of cardboard boxes, rows of folders and piles of dusty paper Bilott diligently pores through.

A sombre whistleblower drama may be seen as a departure, stylistically, for Haynes. But his films have always held up a mirror to the sickness that creeps into our domestic lives, how our homes and bodies, no matter how insulated, are vulnerable to subjugation by powerful forces beyond our control. He began his career when he was still at Bard University, with the litigious, much-bootlegged Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), a compassionate yet strange quasi-documentary that relayed the singer’s life and tragic battle with anorexia nervosa through Barbie dolls. His breakout feature, and one of the key films of the New Queer Cinema movement, Poison (1991), featured a scientist who becomes deformed and murderous after ingesting the distilled essence of sexuality.

Much has been said of how Dark Waters could be a companion piece to Haynes’ surreal domestic horror Safe (1995). The film stars Julianne Moore as a brittle, milk-chugging Southern Californian housewife who is struck by an inexplicable illness. Unable to receive a diagnosis for her declining condition, she finds herself to be “allergic to the 20th century” and flees to a cloistered, cult-like community of similarly afflicted residents. It’s a bruising work of alienation and immunity, which serves as both an allegory of the AIDS crisis and a prophetic, proto-Goop document on wellness culture.

While since then Haynes’ work has shifted between challenging music biopics (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There), artful, glittery literary adaptations (Carol, Wonderstruck, Mildred Pierce) and a period melodrama (Far From Heaven), Dark Waters may just be the most literal probing of Haynes’ preoccupation with toxins and disease, which have long permeated his work.

The film is also indebted to ’70s political thrillers, with Haynes citing Silkwood, The Insider and repeat viewings of All the President's Men as inspirations to his docudrama. Speaking to Vanity Fair, he said: “There’s this weird sense of peril that hangs over these kinds of films … There’s a feeling like it all could fall apart.” Dark Waters taps into this same pool of precarity. While told in chronological order, Dark Waters moves as if circular, a real reflection of the repeated delays, drudgery and near-constant blowback Bilott faced, year after year of pursuing the case.

Haynes’ longtime collaborator cinematographer Edward Lachman contributes to the sense of dread and gloom that pervades even the calmest moments of Dark Waters. Ohio and the Appalachian region are depicted in toxic tones that toggle between frosty, murky blues and sallow, sickly yellows. The city of Cincinnati is rendered sterile, cold and unforgiving. Parkersburg, meanwhile, is sunless and ghostly.

Beyond starring, Mark Ruffalo (himself a longtime environmental advocate) optioned the story from a New York Times profile of Bilott by Nathaniel Rich, brought the script to Haynes and serves as one of film’s producers. Ruffalo, always effective at playing tortured, persistent good guys (see Spotlight, Zodiac), is a good fit for the role of Bilott, an unrelenting and ill-at-ease everyman. He’s wise not to play him as an infallible hero, or an effervescent firebrand à la Erin Brockovich. Instead, Ruffalo moves unsteadily in each frame, becoming more broken and shrunken as the proof of corporate malfeasance piles up. Over the film’s duration, his face sags, his waist thickens and an anxious hand tremor grows more and more pronounced.

Like many of Haynes’ films, Dark Waters is clear-eyed and withering when it comes to social class. Bilott’s modest background is out of step with his flashy, pedigreed colleagues; schisms arise in Parkersburg, where residents financially reliant on DuPont are incensed (understandably) by those who claim that the company is negligent. In one chilly scene, Bilott is driving around the West Virginian town and sees road signs, a community centre and high school all branded with the DuPont logo. It’s a depressing picture of a powerless community at the mercy of a gargantuan corporation.

Haynes also tries his hand at examining gender inequality within the legal world. The women depicted in the Taft office are mostly assistants and receptionists, besides one friend of Bilott’s who remains an associate at the company while the men around her receive promotions and partner status as the years go on. This extends to Bilott’s own wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), who was a lawyer before giving up her career to start a family. But Hathaway seems confused in the role, which so often succumbs to cliches – she’s either an endless wellspring of support, or in nagging, irate mode. It’s a missed opportunity to bring more interesting and complicated ideas about resentment, sacrifice and sexism to the fore.

Some have called Dark Waters a subversive take on the legal drama, but I’d say it stays pretty faithful to the genre. There are cathartic cries, bellowing boardroom monologues and hell, he even uses Johnny Cash’s cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” in the film’s final moments. But Dark Waters doesn’t reach for a tidy good-triumphs-over-evil conclusion. Instead, Haynes settles on a more uneasy, morally ambiguous space. I have no doubt that Haynes is trying to inspire and stir righteous anger, but the film also works as a solemn study of someone losing their faith in the system they’re complicit in.

Dark Waters arrives at a moment when big business’s odious entanglement with government is more blatant than ever. We’re also facing the reality of the fossil-fuel industry’s decades-long deception hurtling us towards climate catastrophe, the window for prevention shrinking every day. Dark Waters may be about contamination rather than warming, but it raises similar ideas about the limited nature of retribution when it comes to these kinds of devastating corporate crimes. PFOA, found in the drinking water of West Virginia, is a “forever chemical”, meaning that it’s indestructible and nonbiodegradable. Traces have been found in oceans and in the blood of most living things, including 99 per cent of humans. Dark Waters ends with this bleak statistic, letting an uncomfortable and urgent question hang in the air: even after holding corporations and governments to account, when the damage is irreversible and inescapable, what then?

Isabella Trimboli

Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic from Melbourne whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, The Saturday Paper and The Lifted Brow. She is also the co-founding editor of music magazine Gusher.

Dark Waters. © Focus Features / Storyteller Distribution

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