The legal thriller is a bit of an oxymoron of a subgenre. “Thriller” conjures images of tense, visceral altercations and physical action. But you hear “legal” and you might be inclined to think of a day at The People’s Court or carving a couple hours out of your day’s schedule because, darn it, you’re going to fight that parking ticket. Dark Waters represents a fresh addition to the paradoxical genre which might not reinvent the propeller, but neither does it capsize the boat.
Director: Todd Haynes
Released: December 6, 2019
Based on the true account of Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo),a corporate lawyer whose firm carries strong ties to chemical titan DuPont. Approached by Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Bilott’s home of West Virginia, a scandal involving DuPont’s willful negligence in its chemical practices unveils a deep history of potentially-fatal chemical use that is beginning to destroy the rural life of West Virginia. Taking the moral high ground despite the implications of poking the multibillion-dollar bear, Bilott dedicates years to fighting the good fight, paying unforeseen costs along the way.
One might be shocked at the appearance of “directed by Todd Haynes” at Dark Waters‘ onset. The American independent’s name is most-associated with quieter character pieces like Carol or I’m Not There, or perhaps his earlier forays into more experimental, allegoric work like Safe. Trying his hand at a mainstream, digestible morality tale ripped from the headlines may not seem like Haynes’ style, but clearly there’s an empathy that binds Dark Waters to the filmmaker’s overall body of work.
You can glance at the premise and get the gist, but Dark Waters looks to damn corporations. We’re given a company whose major human face is played as a pompous, wheel-greasing member of the uber-rich, and a rural community devastatingly affected by corporate greed and indifference. The pollution DuPont perpetuated is colored as being the disregard for human life; the knowing destruction of the environment at the cost of the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia. Dark Waters wants you to invest in the story of human life, and it mostly succeeds in that aspect.
Mark Ruffalo gives a solid turn in the role of righteous legal crusader, but for all of Robert Bilott’s moral admirability, it’s the small-town victims I found myself most-moved by. At the same time though, there’s something simplistic in the way the film presents Wilbur Tennant, our catalyst for all of Dark Waters‘ drama. No doubt a respectful portrayal, the film almost characterizes him as being too simplistic a caricature; here’s a heavily-accented Southerner railing against big city corporations. For the sake of realism, perhaps this was the way to tell the story. In the case of creating compelling cinema, some of Dark Waters‘ beats can feel a little too familiar.
We get a few familiar cliches of the genre, like time-lapses of Bilott poring over insane amounts of documents. He’s gotta build that case! Later, anxiety strikes when he suspects that just maybe he’s being followed. Corporate goons looking to silence him? We tread familiar territory that never felt like it had any real gravitas.
Familiarity isn’t a crime though, and Dark Waters remains entertaining throughout its run of just over two hours. The core story, one of seeking empathy for Americans who are abused and written off as literal statistics (at one point, a damning document mentions “receptors,” which refers to the people of Parkersburg who are “receiving” these deadly chemicals), is effective and important. The performances are strong all around, if a bit tried and true. The great Tim Robbins appears as Robert’s boss, Tom Terp, whose reluctance to pick a fight with the firm’s collaborators gives way to a strong sense of justice. Anne Hathaway gives a good performance as Sarah Bilott, the dutiful wife who stands by her husband while he fights the good fight, however I wonder if there were more that could have been done with her character. As it stands, Sarah is left to serve the entire performance as a crutch for her man.
Dark Waters ultimately feels like just another “important” movie. While absolutely a strongly-produced film, with an important message and displaying technical proficiency, it never once resonated with me as being a terrific film. While it tells a story we should all know, sometimes the ends are more important than the means. By that I mean to say that Dark Waters will leave you with all the feelings a big Hollywood drama is wont to do, but the journey to get there might go down like just another drift down the stream.