Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters” is the perfect film for Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo. In fact, I would go as far as to say the movie might not even exist without him. He’s not only the star and main producer of the film, but also a well-known environmental activist in real life, too.
If you’ve been interested in the new movie and paying attention to the press tour, you’ve probably noticed that Ruffalo has been not only plugging the feature but also spreading awareness on the dangers profiled in the story. Which, of course, also counts as promotion for the film, too, considering the subject matter and the fact that the story is based on shockingly real allegations that took place in the past sixty years.
In the film, Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who links a number of unexplained deaths to one of the world’s largest corporations – DuPont. Bilott’s interest in the investigation begins after he gets an unexpected visit at work from local West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Tennant strongly believes – and has possible proof – that the country’s biggest chemical company is willfully exposing a fatal, man-made chemical into the public water and cooking appliances. Bilott is shocked to discover that 190 cows have mysteriously died in a short amount of time on Tennant’s small farm alone. He learns that DuPont’s neglectful pollution is found primarily in tap water and the frying pan brand Teflon. The lawyer makes it his mission for the next 20 years to fight DuPont and seek justice for the 3,500 West Virginia plaintiffs who have contracted cancer or given birth to babies with severe birth defects as a result of the chemical PFOA since as early as 1961.
The cast of “Dark Waters” includes other recognizable faces like Anne Hathaway, who plays Bilott’s wife, Sarah; Tim Robbins, who plays Robert’s superior; Victor Garber, who plays a DuPont executive; Mare Winningham, who plays a former DuPont employee; and Bill Pullman, who plays a fellow lawyer who’s supporting Bilott.
The cautionary tale almost works as a non-fiction perspective of Haynes’ breakthrough film, “Safe” (1995), and as a companion piece to Ruffalo’s earlier investigative feature film, “Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight” (2015). Unlike a lot of “true story” movies that have a definite conclusion, the story of Bilott vs. DuPont is still ongoing, as mentioned in the epilogue text before the end credits. There still hasn’t been a prevention of PFOA to this day, and the chemical has spread throughout all 50 states.
Still, with as depressing and terrifying as that 50-state truth is, “Dark Waters” is rather good. Ruffalo’s casting was a good fit for the film, and his performance carries the film all the way through. If there is one thing to gripe, though, it’s that Bilott is referred to more than once as a young man, even Ruffalo was 50 years old during filming ... and he looked it. Hathaway’s role as the concerned wife is cliché, but she does very well with putting on those shoes, enough so that I think she deserves some awards nomination hype.
Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan set an effective dramatic tone and atmosphere, but the film doesn’t come across as preachy or over-the-top with its narrative. There are a couple of moments of comic relief that don’t particularly land, but beyond that, “Dark Waters” might be the dark – and truly concerning – horse of this movie season.