Conjuring up the same tone, anger and indignant shock of “Michael Clayton,” “Erin Brockovich” and “A Civil Action” — “Dark Waters” is a mostly rote and generic procedural drama about the fallout of a misbehaving industrial behemoth and the untold number of people it knowingly poisoned.
What’s most disappointing isn’t its generic and recycled air, but the fact it was directed by Todd Haynes, one of the most innovative storytellers of the last three decades.
Despite a relatively low output (seven features since 1991), Haynes had yet to make a stinker and three of his movies (“Safe,” “Far From Heaven” and “Carol”) are considered by most to be modern classics. He also wrote and directed the controversial (and long ago recalled) 1987 short film “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” where Carpenter, her brother Richard and other non-fictional characters were depicted with Barbie dolls. The bottom line is Haynes has taken many chances in the past but “Dark Waters” plays out as if it could have been directed by literally hundreds of other journeyman filmmakers.
Based on the New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathanial Rich, the screenplay from Mario Correa and Matt Carnahan is deliberate and methodical with a nice balance of cold facts and compelling human interest hooks. Taking place in the rural Parkersburg, West Virginia, Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman infuse the production with a color palate of blacks, grays, dingy whites and muted blues which perfectly captures the downbeat nature of the material. While appropriate to the story, it also shows little to no artistic breakthroughs.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Robert Bilott, an attorney working for a firm which represents DuPont that has a plant in town employing what appears to be most of Parkersburg’s residents. At the request of a mutual friend, Bilott visits the home of Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer whose cows have either mysteriously died or were born with disturbing and disfiguring birth defects.
In the blink of an eye, Bilott goes from defending DuPont to calling the company to task, something that initially rubs the senior partners (Tim Robbins and Victor Garber) and many DuPont employees the wrong way. Even after a notable spike in cancer cases, the bulk of the citizens turn a blind eye to DuPont’s dumping of chemical waste in the Ohio and Little Kanawha rivers. DuPont pays its workers well, and the resentment of the possible massive loss of jobs overrules disease and death at the hands of the town’s largest employer.
After the enlightening and shocking opening 30 minutes, the narrative downshifts for a good hour with the filmmakers doling out reams of incriminating data spread out over a dozen or so years. While informative, it is thunderously dull and cinematically inert. Watching the timeline years tick by on screen while Bilott plays David to DuPont’s Goliath during protracted legal stalling is not what most audiences want to sit through.
Do you know what Perflourooctanoic Acid (PFOA) is or even how to pronounce it? Don’t worry, you will.
Unlike most of the above-mentioned titles, “Dark Waters” doesn’t come with a side order of conspiracy theory; there’s no mystery and rather than deny culpability, DuPont brings in hordes of “experts” who cloud the issue by trying (and nearly succeeding) in changing the legal definition of “poison.”
There is a small sliver of thriller included when Bilott begins looking over his shoulder, worried for himself, his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) and their three sons. But it comes and goes in a relative flash.
By the time the movie concludes, the viewers who haven’t already fallen into a deep slumber will be presented with the results of the marathon court battle again via on-screen text. While it offers deserved justice, it is accompanied with an over-familiar, been-there-seen-that resignation.
What took place in Parkersburg was a huge (avoidable) tragedy with great human loss which most people are not yet aware. It is a story that needed to be told, just not in such a predictable, familiar and backside-numbing manner. Hayes could have done so much more with the material, but chose to avoid the style which has made his back catalog titles so rich, memorable and enduring.
The next director looking to make a fact-based, human-induced tragedy should have a DVD copy of this movie at the ready at all times to remind themselves how not to make the same mistakes Haynes did here.