If you’ve ever fried an egg on a Teflon pan, as I did last Tuesday, chances are you’ve got some levels of perfluorooctanoic acid in your bloodstream. Known as C8 for the number of carbon atoms strung together by scientists, this silent killer is responsible for cancers, deformities, and birth defects. A title card in Dark Waters, the new film by Todd Haynes, asserts that ninety-nine percent of humans have trace amounts of C8. In Parkersburg, West Virginia, it didn’t matter if you didn’t work for the DuPont plant responsible for most of the city’s employment; during the sixties and seventies, DuPont dumped C8 sludge into creeks and buried it in steel drums, contaminating the water enough to destroy generations of human and animal life.
Like the recent The Report, Dark Waters focuses on the efforts of one man to expose the criminality of the system he once served. Parkersville farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) shows up at the Cincinnati law firm of Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) demanding justice for the cattle with engorged gall bladders and hooves turned in on themselves. Referred by Bilott’s grandmother, Wilbur expertly plays on the former resident’s guilt. With the reluctant but unstinting support of partner/boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins, the liberal beacon he often plays in real life), Bilott comes home again, quietly but unstintingly assembling a mass of data indicting DuPont for not only poisoning its workers but covering up its complicity thanks to EPA loopholes allowing corporations to self-regulate; to prove that DuPont exceeded what DuPont considered safe is Bilott’s mission.
Righteous and plodding, Dark Waters has cinematographer Edward Lachman to thank for imbuing rural West Virginia and the drear of corporate spaces with a sense of doom. The film’s best sequence unfolds as the opening credits roll: local teens out for drunken night swimming in a pond reeking with chemicals, the terror of which Haynes and Lachman render with a POV shot of an unseen force beneath the surface coming for them, like the shark in Jaws. This is the stuff we expect from the director who kicked off a career with a short film in which Barbie dolls reenacted the life of Karen Carpenter. Almost as spooky are the washed-out grays and whites of rural West Virginia, quietly dying.
At its best Dark Waters is of a piece with the Todd Haynes who also made Safe (1995): contaminants are everywhere, and paranoids have a point. What if DuPont has poisoned his own pipes? Glasses of water get cutaways as if they were bloody knives or smoking guns. If Haynes had figured out other ways to animate Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan’s literalist approach to Nathaniel Rich’s 2016 New York Times Magazine exposé, Dark Waters wouldn’t feel so familiar. But out come the dust-covered tropes: the Neglected Wife (played by Anne Hathaway as a former lawyer who practices her Catholicism, and that’s all she is); the Devilish Corporate CEO (Victor Garber) whom Bilott, of course, embarrasses in public; the citizens getting scowls from neighbors at church and on main street for ratting on the company that’s the city’s biggest employer. Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich in the blender, then. Hit puree.
Then there’s Ruffalo. Friendless, uninterested in hobbies, affectionate to his three boys without paying them much mind, Bilott is kept going by indignation. In his crappy car and bad suits, he carries his West Virginianness without much thinking about its political utility; he no doubt considers this conclusion cynical. Although actors find new angles for types they’ve played, Ruffalo’s doggedness gets tiring when the script offers him no humor, no bits of business. Robbins comes through with a monologue of cumulative power aimed at sneering fellow partners. Camp and an unrecognizable Mare Winningham deliver the best performances as townspeople whose ability to see their death around the corner fails to prevent them from doing good.
Unquestionably the film Haynes and co-producer Ruffalo wanted to make, Dark Waters also earns points for quashing triumphalism. If anything, Bilott’s hope for legal redress from DuPoint has an Ahab-ian futility; it couldn’t be otherwise when victims keep dying. And the film represents another of Haynes’ examinations of the genre picture; Dark Waters was directed by the artist whose Carol, Mildred Pierce, and Far From Heaven addressed how people respond to communities that betray them. With a better script, Dark Waters might’ve ranked beside them.