Dark Waters

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dark Waters
"Haynes is at least as interested in the cultural issues at play here and the psychological impact of living in such an unbalanced world."

Anyone who works in a skilled profession will be familiar with the way that friends, relatives and friends of relatives who are in no position to pay come by from time to time hoping to make use of that skill, to get just a little bit of help with something that's impossible for them otherwise. It's easy to feel sympathy for them and start helping out, but of course responding to such requests leads to more requests and it's easy to become overwhelmed. Corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (played here by Mark Ruffalo) is sufficiently well established in his profession to be wary of this, and it's with some reluctance that he allows his grandmother to persuade him to visit a neighbour of hers, West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). What he sees on that visit, however, will change the course off his life.

Based on true events, Dark Waters has elements of legal drama, horror and slowly evolving mystery, building to a devastating conclusion. Ever since Zodiac, each role that Ruffalo has played has seemingly taken him one step closer to becoming the new Columbo, and here he shows something of the legendary detective's stamina as he works his way through sheaf after sheaf of papers and interviews increasingly hostile people, getting incrementally closer to the truth. What he wants to find out is what's happening to Tennant's cows. The more convinced he becomes by the farmer's argument that chemical company DuPont is responsible for their condition, he more determined he becomes to prove it.

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The scenes with the cows form the dark heart of the film. Bilott has no experience of such animals but anybody can see that something is wrong. Distorted, mutated corpses are scattered around the farm in various states of burial. Another cow lies on the ground, moaning in obvious distress as Tennant tries to explain what's wrong with her, but all he can see are the symptoms, which seem to make no sense. He's attached to his animals; Camp's intense performance shows us the impact of living through such devastating loss, especially when a previously healthy animal loses her mind and has to be shot. One is reminded of the sense of helplessness in HP Lovecraft's pastoral tragedy The Colour Out Of Space. Tennant is just an ordinary working class man - he feels no more able to get justice from a giant corporation than from an alien presence. The gulf in power between this grieving man struggling in the mud and the expensively suited businessmen who inhabit the glass towers of Bilott's familiar world could not be more striking.

If at first this doesn't much resemble Todd Haynes' usual work, that changes as we spend more time in middle class domestic spaces, offices and waiting rooms. Haynes' habit of placing his characters slightly lower in the frame than we're used to emphasises the smallness of all the individuals we meet in comparison to the corporate and social machines of which they are part. There is no shortage of that darkness that he taps into so effectively, and his characteristic quietness of approach is well suited to a story in which apathy and negligence add as much to that as any direct action. Indeed, at no point is it suggested that DuPont had ill intent - simply that it failed to make changes and instead covered up emerging evidence that something was very, very wrong.

DuPont has claimed that some of the events depicted in this film are misleading or untrue, but hasn't, as far as we're aware, specified exactly which depictions it takes issue with. Legal cases related to the company's record on pollution are ongoing but Haynes is at least as interested in the cultural issues at play here and the psychological impact of living in such an unbalanced world. There's some fantastic character work and solid acting all round, with the possible exception of Anne Hathaway, who has too little to do as Bilott's wife (herself an accomplished lawyer in real life) and overacts in places in an apparent effort to avoid being overlooked.

The slow pace won't be for everyone and the writers have perhaps stuck a little too faithfully to the historic sequence of events when we don't need to see as much as we do to get the point, but overall this is a powerful piece of work and it's not surprising that there are reports of it making DuPont stockholders nervous. If you have Teflon in your kitchen, it may well make you nervous too.

Reviewed on: 17 Jan 2020
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Dark Waters packshot
A corporate defence attorney takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.

Director: Todd Haynes

Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Mario Correa

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman

Year: 2019

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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