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Dark Waters is a real-life horror movie

Dark Waters

Mark Ruffalo’s best acting is done with body language and with his eyes in Dark Waters.

“You knew. Still, you did nothing.” — Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo)

There’s an inherent problem in making movies about true events involving actual people: Real life isn’t structured like a two-hour movie, taking its sweet time to unfold. In Dark Waters, director Todd Haynes (2017’s Wonderstruck) tackles the task of shoehorning almost two decades worth of environmental law history into as many hours.

Dark Waters is the true story of attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo). Bilott, from Parkersburg, West Virginia, is contacted by hometown farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who tells him a gruesome story about the fate of his cattle — poisoned, mutated and killed, he believes, by runoff from a nearby DuPont factory, with alarming ramifications for the town’s human population. 

The problem: Bilott isn’t a plaintiff’s attorney. He’s a corporate defense lawyer specializing in getting chemical companies off the hook. Against his own better judgement, not to mention that of his associates, Bilott takes the case, little realizing that his defense of Wilbur and other “little people” against the corporate Goliath will come to define his career and life.

Admirably, Haynes lays out the story in true Dragnet style: “Just the facts, ma’am.” 

There’s very little directorial intrusion or flourish, no editorial flash-backing to confuse the progression. The actors dial down their deliveries to a style more closely approximating real legal proceedings as opposed to theatricality, especially in a chilling scene depicting the deposition of DuPont’s remorseless CEO.

This prosaic style means that Ruffalo’s best acting is done with body language and with his eyes as opposed to courtroom flamboyance, as in a scene where Bilott is debating whether he should risk turning the key in his car’s ignition. After Ruffalo, Camp delivers the film’s best performance, in his supporting turn as the long-suffering Wilbur, although Anne Hathaway, as Bilott’s wife, and Tim Robbins, as Bilott’s boss, also provide reliable, if more familiar, characterizations.

The procedural approach, which spans the protracted chronology of years, feels a little like an episode of Law & Order, and offers Ruffalo’s character no easy or cathartic out. He can’t turn into a 2,000-pound rage monster. Instead, Haynes and Ruffalo carefully delineate Bilott’s daunting task of reviewing hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence submitted by DuPont in its own defense. 

That’s more what legal cases are about, perseverance over histrionics, and cinematographer Edward Lachman, who also shot the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There for Haynes, capitalizes on cloudy, wintery scenes and a muted palette when Bilott visits West Virginia, with leafless trees suggesting skeletal hands reaching out of the tainted landscape.

It’s probably, and unfortunately, true that such a low-key approach isn’t going to draw as many viewers as will the next franchise sequel, prequel or remake. Dark Waters appears to be essentially factual in its presentation, depicting a watershed moment not only in American jurisprudence but also in American history, and is, of course, thematically very similar to 1998’s A Civil Action. It’s a real-life horror movie.

The chemical at the heart of Dark Waters, perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, is apparently essential in the manufacture of Teflon and other water-resistant coatings. Is America ready to give up the convenience of non-stick cookware and stain-resistant carpet? I suspect it isn’t, and it’s more than a rhetorical question for the thousands who have suffered birth defects, illness and even death.

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