Trust. It’s a word that seems to represent a sparse commodity these days and director Todd Haynes takes New York Times’ journalist Nathaniel Rich’s article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” and shows us just how very true this is.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati lawyer whose firm represents large chemical companies, but a visit a farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) from Bilott’s hometown in West Virginia turns Bilott’s world upside down as he finds himself on the other side of the legal bench, fighting against one of the most powerful chemical companies: DuPont. The story becomes a legal thriller as Bilott uncovers and discovers the coverups from this massive industry who appears to value the bottom line over human welfare.
Bilott is an unassuming and seemingly typical lawyer in the corporate world, but immediately upon his exchange with Tennant, we see he is a man with integrity. It helps that Tennant knows Bilott’s grandmother, affectionately referred to as “Gramers,” and Bilott strives to appease her. Bilott ventures from Cincinnati to Parkersburg, WV to visit Gramers and then Tennant’s farm filled with haunting scenes of catastrophic proportions as Tennant shares his theory of DuPont poising the creek water that runs through his farmland. This is when the mystery begins and Bilott plunges in head first. This will become a decision that will affect him, his firm, family, and ultimately an entire community and their futures in ways he could have never predicted.
Taking place over decades, Bilot carefully gets his feet wet, slowly wading into the tidal wave of information as we witness the youthful Bilott initially trusting all with whom he contacts in DuPont. This youthful naïveté is soon shaken as Bilott is then swamped by an endless number of boxes containing the requested “disclosures” from the chemical giant. Meant to deter him from proceeding, Bilott just dives right in, his tenacity keeping him afloat as he strives for justice. From our vantage point, these discoveries are encouraging but at the same time simply horrifying.
Director Haynes dissects this story with the precision of a surgeon, slicing ever so delicately to expose the truth creating one of the most compelling storytelling styles imaginable. The film is an intellectually stimulating one as we, along with Bilott, learn the necessary components of chemical bonding and product development as well as the regulations of the EPA. It’s engrossing and captivating, and sadly, as this film is based in truth, we see the dire consequences of big money steam rolling over the everyday Joe. On the other hand, the film gives us knowledge and with that comes power; the power to make changes and raise awareness to protect ourselves.
Ruffalo is the star and champion, bringing Rob Bilott’s personality to life. This humble and driven man isn’t your typical hero, but his integrity, loyalty, and willingness to go against the grain in order to protect those who cannot protect themselves makes him one. His body language, never confident and certainly not stereotypical of a high-powered corporate lawyer, endears us even more to him. Anne Hathaway portrays Sarah, Rob’s wife, and while her role is small, it’s vital in giving Rob a fully developed character. Their home life is affected by this case and we see the sacrifices she has made for him, the children, and herself in order to support her husband. Without her realistic performance, Bilott’s character would have felt more two-dimensional.
Adding to the authenticity of the film and the dire feeling of what is revealed is the cinematography. Creating and capturing those hauntingly disturbing images of affected livestock, children, and even pets, is punctuated by the endlessly grey skies. The sun seems to never shine, creating an atmosphere that is as haunting as the images we see.
This isn’t the first film about how large chemical companies disregard regulations or put their bottom line before the health and safety of its workers and communities and it won’t be the last. However, not since “Erin Brockovich” (2000) have we had an important narrative feature film about the subject. There are innumerable documentaries which address similar subjects all around our country, but perhaps we needed the star power of the man who is more widely known as The Incredible Hulk to shed a light on what’s happening in our own back yards and help prove that “better living through chemistry” isn’t true.
“Dark Waters” is a powerful, compelling, and necessary story to tell as it has you on the edge of your seat, mesmerized by each and every scene. With incredible performances that are never showy and a story that is gripping, it’ll change how you view your own world and your own definition of “trust.”