If meanly-clad-little-David-versus-venomous-corporate-Goliath melodramas like Todd Haynes’s fact-based Dark Waters are more alike than unalike, it’s because there’s really only one way to frame what happens every day in a country controlled by companies with vast coffers, armies of lobbyists, and politicians leased by the year. This isn’t a lefty rant: That this is how things work shouldn’t even be up for debate. What Haynes brings to the story isn’t a new scenario or twist, but a more intense, invasive tone. He shows you hell on Earth and then puts you in the limbo that is the legal system, which moves tortuously slow even when the science seems inarguable.
You can guess where Dark Waters is going — beat for beat — even if you haven’t read the fine Nathaniel Rich New York Times Magazine profile that inspired it. Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a West Virginia boy who has made it over the river into Cincinnati, where he works for a law firm that largely defends corporations against troublesome regulations — until a couple of dusty farmers from his hometown lumber into his offices (sniff, sniff go the well-coiffed passersby, very Parasite) asking for help on account of being (probably) poisoned by the nearby DuPont factory. The embarrassed Bilott gently steers them away, but a mention of his grandma gives him a twinge and some videotapes of cows that look as if they’re being eaten away from within gives several more — spasms, more like. Soon, he’s making the 130-mile drive to survey the farms of the living dead for himself, while trying to make the case that there is a case to be made to the firm’s dubious partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins). Along the way, the big-city swells with whom he has become so chummy begin to see him as a threat — and, worse, a hick. (“You wanna flush your career down the toilet for some cowhand?”) His wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), isn’t too thrilled, either, though she has a brain and a heart and so comes around.
This is Haynes’s most traditionally structured film, missing his trademark cinema-studies syntax. (That characterization is meant affectionately, mostly.) But he has his own way with poison, as evidenced not only by his fabled, NEA-decertified tryptic Poison, but by Safe, in which his well-to-do protagonist (Julianne Moore) becomes fatally allergic to the 20th century. The toxins in Safe are metaphorical but have a literal component, while the toxins in Dark Waters are literal but metaphorical too. Early scenes — indoor and out — have a pale, chlorinated cast, while the soil is gray, not brown, its animal-burial mounds like tumors. (The creepy prologue is set in the ’70s, when a group of teens go skinny-dipping in a greenish, unusually warm pond near DuPont.) Ruffalo’s Bilott doesn’t have the swagger or crowd-pleasing lines (“They’re called boobs, Frank”) of Erin Brockovich, and after an hour his open face sags, his waist thickens, and he no longer seems to have enough hopes to be dashed. He just goes on, insult after insult, file after file, month after month, year after year, while animals go mad and disproportionate numbers of people develop ulcers, flus, and give birth to children with eyes in unusual places.
That Dark Waters is repetitive is not a lapse in storytelling. It’s the design. Incremental progress is followed by wasting delay — at one point the forward momentum stops inexplicably for years. This gives Haynes time to study not the corporate villains but the bystanders and their endless negotiations among themselves. Their conflict with the people bringing the lawsuit is both absurd and understandable, given that everyone must weigh his or her fear of illness against DuPont’s role in keeping the town from sinking into oblivion like so many of its West Virginia neighbors. The actors never go soft. The phenomenal Bill Camp is barely recognizable as the farmer who first contacts Bilott: Stiff-necked under heavy eyebrows, he speaks with a basso growl that aligns him more firmly with his angry cows. Robbins gives a subtle but powerful performance as Bilott’s boss, who proves to have decency but no initiative, leaving his employee to bear the weight of a lawsuit against one of the world’s most powerful corporations. Hathaway portrays the super-Christian Sarah as an ally but not a rock. She has three boys to raise, and when Bilott pulls the pans out of the cupboards in search of cancer-causing compounds, his vigilance doesn’t win him many points. Fortunately, Bill Pullman arrives and does a Clarence Darrow number that keeps the movie from icing over.
At the root of DuPont’s evil is Teflon, and if that’s a spoiler I don’t care because the case is well-known, and even if you don’t see the film you should switch to cast iron. I’m getting prescriptive because Dark Waters does, too: It has a “the fight goes on” finish and Johnny Cash promising over the closing credits that he won’t back down. After watching the film’s unambiguous struggle with its unambiguous crusaders and whistle-blowers, we return to the so-called real world, where an effective strategy is to brand women and men of conscience as rats or traitors or even spies. The bad guys have all the money but at least we have indie filmmakers and movie stars like Ruffalo (who vigorously and successfully campaigned to keep the frackers out of New York that caused havoc across the Delaware from him in Pennsylvania). Dark Waters is hardly a cure, but it keeps the issue aboveground.