Sickening. Nauseating. Horrifying. These are the words that come to mind while watching Todd Haynes‘ Dark Waters. Depicting the 20-year (and ongoing) legal battle led by lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) against DuPont, Dark Waters is a legal thriller that more often plays like a crushing legal horror film. In hearing about this project, one may think Haynes an odd fit for a story about a court case but in execution, it is a natural fit. This is not a neat-and-tidy 1990s courtroom drama where the righteous plaintiff and their dedicated lawyer defeat a wicked corporate defendant. This is a story of an “iconic American company”, their negligence, callous indifference, and manipulation of the legal system to continue to drag this case out over the years. It is a film of many victories that seem major – mimicking a classic courtroom drama’s climax – only for it to all loop back around in a series of vicious gut punches.
From the onset, Haynes and DP Edward Lachman establish the fighting ground for Robert Bilott. As a corporate defense attorney who made a career defending chemical companies, Robert Bilott has recently been a partner at his prestigious Cincinnati law firm. But, he is about to be trapped. The opening shot as the camera moves around the outside of his office, framing him behind the slightly shut blinds on the windows, immediately boxes him in. As the blinds end, he is then framed within the open door further breaking him into a box within the overall frame. This is his battleground. He is not the one who will be in the courtroom fighting this case.
As a result of his firm’s desire to eventually work with DuPont and his friendship with their on-staff attorney Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), Robert tells his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) that this will be quick-and-easy. No courtroom needed. Just some discovery requests, a realization that DuPont was in the clear, and then all settled. It is anything but. Later shots of Robert surrounded by boxes sent by DuPont as part of discovery only further this, dwarfing over him and seeming to engulf the room in cardboard. It is overwhelming, claustrophobic, and intended to demonstrate the monumental task before him. He is supposed to feel overwhelmed and the fact that he does, but presses on nonetheless, is used by Haynes to tell this incredible story of perseverance in the face of systemic hurdles.
The case started simply enough with Parkersburg, West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) showing up at Robert’s office with a request to take on his case. Having been referred there by Robert’s grandmother, Wilbur tells him that his cattle have been dying because of a DuPont landfill near his home. Dark Waters at this point feels like a horror film. Its every beat, reveal, and detail builds to create a haunting atmosphere of corporate disinterest in the common man. From details that show how much DuPont knew to how little they did, Haynes cultivates a feeling where one could simply break down into a ball of tears while watching.
As the case drags on and Haynes uses various time jumps to show glimpses of where it has progressed over the years, the frustration, helplessness, and anger one feels only multiplies. A monologue given by Tim Robbins as Tom Terp expresses his frustration over the firm’s other partners to back Robert on this effort embodies the audience’s growing anger. In the face of DuPont knowingly poisoning a community and an entire nation over 40 years due to the presence of PFOA/C-8 in everything from Parkersburg’s drinking water to Teflon found in nearly every home across the United States, nothing seems to happen. Settlements are made that are drops in the bucket for DuPont. All the while, they clog the court system and lobby the government to make Robert and his clients’ case even more challenging. The indifference, the corporate moral corruption, and the tragedy of the situation leave one in a state of constant horror while watching Dark Waters.
Haynes brings his own style to the story, emphasizing the personal stories and the building horror in Parkersburg. One of the film’s greatest visual motifs is a series of montages taken from the point-of-view of people in a car, typically Robert. As he drives around in its first appearance, he sees DuPont logos all over town. Later, he notices the sick people, dogs, and other animals. At the end, a different perspective is given as the driver sees the unemployed people of Parkersburg, upset and in need after DuPont seemingly moved out of the town or laid people off. It is an incredibly powerful tool, one that emphasizes initially the presence DuPont has and then progresses to show the ramifications of what DuPont has done and the court case. At home, Haynes gives the same personal treatment to Robert and his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway). Each passing year, they grow further apart. Their kids grow up unseen by Robert who has become ostracized from his own family. Placing him in separate rooms from everyone else, separated by a kitchen island during a fight, or even behind glass doors as his family celebrates and he takes a phone call, Haynes and Lachman consistently and excellently utilize the mise en scene to establish the cost of this battle on both Parkersburg and the Billot home.
Further identifiers of Haynes autuerist style crop up in the film’s thematic range. The examination of the home and the town, of course, being a key part of this with the ostracization of Robert at work or of the plaintiffs in their hometown is right in line with Haynes’ work. One can think of Far from Heaven, Carol, or any number of his other films as ones that examine norms where characters are then ostracized by the community for stepping out of line. The lawyers at the firm fear losing respect in chemical community. The townspeople fear losing their job, blaming the plaintiffs for shaking the firm hold DuPont had on the town. And as with all of Haynes’ films, it demonstrates the sick facade of American life through the deconstruction of these accepted norms. Everybody uses Teflon. DuPont is an “iconic American company” and a titan of industry. The government is there to protect you. It is safe to drink the water from the tap. All lies. Yet, the townspeople and upper-class society cling to an ideal, a supposed excellence implied by being an American business. Those who dare take a shot at the bow of one such goliath are seen as a pariah in the community and are taking their lives in their hands with such a risk. All the while, every force is used to keep this power and facade in place. From throwing money at the problem to lobbying, the moral corruption Dark Waters shows is a direct critique of how America handles corporations and their role in the community. It is a society that is captive to companies like DuPont – as Robert says multiple times – and one that is, as such, resistant to any change that would dare infringe on the capitalistic control exerted by DuPont or any other powerful, influential company.
Mark Ruffalo is consistently strong here, as are Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, and Victor Garber. Ruffalo’s passion for the subject does not hurt, lending itself to the film’s portrayal of Robert’s exhaustive search for the truth. He does crumble at times under the weight of the script that can be a bit too on-the-nose and preachy in spots – moments tailor-made for a trailer’s big punches are all here, all a bit too over-the-top to ring true – but Ruffalo is otherwise sturdy and assured in capturing both the passion and the strain on Robert over the years. As a whole, despite those occasional flaws in largely the writing, Dark Waters is a well acted film that benefits considerably from the authenticity of actors’ portrayals. Characters played by Bill Camp or Mare Winningham feel real, capturing the fears of these small-town folks who just wants answers and no trouble, an unfortunate impossibility in a town that lives on DuPont business.
Dark Waters is a legal thriller, but no run-of-the-mill exercise in genre for Todd Haynes. It progresses like a horror film, laying out what DuPont has done and then showing the prolonged legal battle that delivers few clear exultations of relief and joy that the case is over. When they do arrive, Haynes never gives into this climactic rush of emotion, quickly showing how it will drag on from there and compound despite apparent (temporary) victory. Add in classic Haynes themes about social norms, ostracization in small communities, and an examination of the family structure, and Dark Waters feels very much at home within his filmography and telling the film’s story benefits considerably from Haynes’ strengths. What could be a trite feel good story about a lawyer working for the little guy turns into a sprawling examination of the way in which corporate America has everything in the palm of its hand. Tricking people into submission, DuPont turns a blind eye or is simply naive to the abhorrent shortcuts taken while the company hides behind the facade of being an “iconic American company”. Deconstructing this and peeling back all of the hideous layers of this onion, Dark Waters will leave you incensed and racing home to throw away anything with Teflon.