In Brief: No Perry Mason theatrics, and no intense in court exchanges between actors. This is simple storytelling at its best and is a dark story about a dark deed allegedly done by DuPont.
In 1999 corporate attorney Rob Bilott is contacted by a farmer in Parkersburg, West Virginia. He suspects DuPont has dumped chemicals in the water that his cows drink. Some are deformed. Others are dying.
His family is also having health issues.
Bilott does a little investigating, believes his client and files a lawsuit. DuPont denies it has done anything wrong and takes exception to the suit. Bilott then tries to get DuPont’s people to give him details about what kind of toxins might have been released into the environment around the West Virginia.
Of course, he’s stonewalled and the fight begins.
The toxin turns out to be PFOA, a nasty chemical with a number of uses like making Teflon. DuPont also might have been using the employees of the plant in Parkersburg and other locations as guinea pigs to test this and other chemicals.
Dark Waters is the story of the suit, and the attorney and law firm that braved a tilted court system, and the nation’s — by some standards — broken system of law to bring justice to the families impacted by DuPont’s alleged chemical abuses.
So what about the movie? It’s pretty good. Not great but good, and definitely thought-provoking.
Mark Ruffalo plays Bilott as a thoughtful, low-key kinda guy. He’s happily married and about to make partner in the law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister. Ironically, at that time it made its money advising clients like DuPont on how to apply the 1980 federal superfund law to their businesses.
Most of you know Ruffalo from playing Bruce Banner aka The Hulk in the Avengers and other Marvel movies. However, Ruffalo — when given a great part — is a damned good actor, and is much more capable than just turning green and growling when a threat to the world happens.
He is one of the reasons to love the best picture winning Spotlight in 2015 and is one of the reasons I loved the little-seen film Foxcatcher in 2014. Ruffalo got nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes for those performances and for his work in The Kids are All Right in 2010.
No Oscar or Golden Globe — yet — but I do predict that someday his ship will arrive.
Give Ruffalo a solid screenplay, and a reason to be one of the best in any given year and he delivers. He plays Bilott as a quiet, unassuming man but also one who refuses to settle. And no one — at least these days — does low-key better than Ruffalo. But low-key, when done by Ruffalo, means you get a strong sense of the strength of will that his characters possess. Bilott — who has the patience of Job — has that kind of strength and Ruffalo plays that strength perfectly.
Oddly, he does it without a lot of ranting and raving and instead relies on the little things that separate a good actor from one that is great. He’ll use body language, or a pained expression, or a look of shock to convey thoughts that a couple of pages of dialogue can’t accomplish. It is true acting genius and why critics have been Ruffalo fans for a couple of decades, and fans way before the rest of the world got to know him as The Hulk.
The rest of the cast — though a good one — has very little to do. They fill in important parts and toss off lines needed to advance the story but other than that, Dark Waters is pretty much a one-man show.
So what about director Todd Haynes’ movie?
You have to view the topics investigated in movies like Dark Waters with some skepticism. The lawsuit battle between DuPont and Bilott lasted close to 20-years before DuPont ran out of room in the end zone and lost, and finally ended up paying out over $670 million.
Now we’re back to the reason for skepticism. It’s not because of Bilott’s just cause or even because of the result. Obviously — and because it’s a movie — dramatic license has to be taken. And it is taken often. However, fact-checkers say Haynes’ film is fairly accurate.
However, Haynes has to pack close to 20-years into a little over two-hours. Lawsuits have lots of dead time to them and unfortunately, so does this movie. Other than Ruffalo’s acting there often isn’t that much happening. The story — like the real court case — is rather uneventful.
It is — however — dramatic.
Haynes is a very good storyteller. What DuPont did — though never admitted — is insidious. As Haynes did with his two best films, Carol and Far From Heaven, the power of his movie is how quietly the story is told. There are no loud courtroom outbursts or Perry Mason theatrics. Super dramatic scenes like the one where Bilott tears up the family kitchen, or where he — as the trailer shows — worries about his car being blown up, are few.
Instead, Haynes simply tells Bilott’s story and that of the chemical company’s victims. It’s simple, straight-forward and — I promise — a film that will have you leaving the theater as angry at DuPont and the others that knew the dreadful secret of the destructive nature of PFOAs as Bilott and his clients.
To get that kind of a reaction is good filmmaking and is — other than the historical significance of the case — it is what makes Dark Waters a very good movie.
Director: Todd Haynes
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, William Jackson Harper, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp
Rated PG-13 for mature themes and some language. While very slow in spots, this one is a tough one to watch. The acting is incredible and gets this one a 4 on the Friday Flicks with Gary 0 to 5 scale.
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Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.