What does a rabble-rousing, fight-the-power, ripped-from-the-headlines corporate-conspiracy whistleblower drama look like in the Trump era? It looks like Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters” — which is to say, it looks very dark indeed. And also potent and gripping and necessary. The movie form I’m talking about is one we all know in our bones; you could say, at this point, that we know it a little too well. It was launched in the late ’60s and ’70s, with films like “Z” and “All the President’s Men” and “Norma Rae,” and it continued through the ’80s, with films like “Silkwood,” and the ’90s, with dramas like “The Insider.” Yet by 2000, the year that Steven Soderbergh released “Erin Brockovich,” a grand irony had set in. The genre, after 30 years, had become so mythic and familiar, so weirdly comfortable in its arcs and outlines (the discovery of political and corporate malfeasance! the brave soul who takes on the system! the airing of corrupt secrets! the restoration of justice!), that almost nothing these movies showed us could truly shock us anymore. Their revelation was gone, and maybe their muckraking impact as well.
Yet I put it that way because what we call “conspiracy theory” has become one of the addictions of our age (it helped Donald Trump turn his followers into a cult), and so the moment you use a word like conspiracy, you’re calling up that whole dubious ethos. But then, there aren’t too many other words for what “Dark Waters” is about: the fact that starting in the early 1950s, Dupont, the most powerful American chemical company, used toxic materials in a number of its products, knowing full well — because of the company’s own research — the disastrous effects those materials might have on anyone who came into contact with them.
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“Erin Brockovich,” too, was about toxic chemicals run amok. So what’s new about “Dark Waters”? In part, it’s the intensity of the film’s emotional palette, which hovers between a kind of rah-rah crusader vibe and something far more dread-fueled — the perception that in the United States today, even when you think you’re fighting the power, the power will always have another way to fight you back. That’s not a feeling intrinsic to the Trump era, yet in many ways it defines the witches’ brew of cynicism and despair that led to Trump — the sense, on the part of both the left and the right, that the system is rigged, that it’s bigger than all of us. That’s what “Dark Waters” taps into, and it makes the movie at once cathartic and suck-in-your-breath ominous.
In form, though, this is a classically designed, forcefully executed entry in the lone-rebel-battles-the-corporation genre. The film, written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, is based on the 2016 New York Times Magazine story “The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare,” and the person it’s about was, in fact, a corporate defense attorney — a man whose chief clients were chemical companies. (In Hollywood terms, he worked for the bad guys.)
His name is Robert Bilott, and he’s played by Mark Ruffalo (who is also one of the film’s producers) as a doughy straight-arrow in a brushed dork haircut whose job consists of doing what he’s told. In 1998, a few months before he becomes a partner at the law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Cincinnati, Bilott receives an unannounced visit at his office from Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a hardscrabble Appalachian farmer from Parkesburg, West Virginia. He’s toting a box of battered old videotapes on which he recorded what happened to his herd of cows. Robert has to ditch the executive meeting he’s in, pissing off his boss, to deal with this scruffy nuisance standing in the law firm’s lobby. That already suggests what he’s up against: not just a legal case but an invasion — of someone from the “wrong” class, and of inconvenient truths.
But Wilbur has a connection. He’s a friend of Robert’s grandmother — and, in fact, Robert used to visit his farm to ride horses as a kid. So even though Robert is the opposite of an environmental lawyer, out of his bone-deep Midwestern sense of family loyalty he makes a trip out to Wilbur’s farm. There, he sees the graphic evidence Wilbur has gathered that his cows have been poisoned by the water in Dry Run Creek, which Dupont has used as a waste dump. It’s queasy to behold. And as it turns out, it’s the tip of the toxic iceberg.
Robert, aghast at what he’s shown, assumes that it must be a case of “innocent” negligence. He agrees to represent Wilbur, which means that his law firm is now going to sue Dupont, one of the firm’s key clients. Yet Robert and the firm, led by the good-ol’-boy smoothie Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), aren’t out to bite the hand that feeds — and Victor Garber’s canny, now-polite-now-scary performance as Dupont’s chief executive shows you what happens if you do.
Robert thinks he’s doing damage control, helping to manage and contain a case that will not turn out to be a big deal. But he doesn’t know where it’s leading. In rural America, poisoned water for farm animals has a way of being connected to poisoned water for humans. As Robert investigates what happened at the creek, he comes across evidence of a chemical known as PFOA, which he can’t seem to learn anything about. Why the mystery? Boxes and boxes of Dupont documents, going back 50 years, show up in Robert’s offices, and he must pore through all of them to piece the case together. He becomes increasingly obsessed, and we see the toll it takes on him and his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), who’s supportive but only up to a point (they have several children, who Robert is ignoring).
So what makes “Dark Waters” more than just another one of those movies? In certain ways, it is — though like the just-released Adam Driver true-life torture-coverup thriller “The Report,” it’s an exemplary one. What gives “Dark Waters” its singular texture is that Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Far From Heaven”), who has never made a drama remotely like this, colors in the scenario with an underlying dimension of personalized obsession.
Haynes, the brilliant writer-director of “Safe,” the eerie 1995 drama in which Julianne Moore played a neurasthenic California housewife suffering from vague yet debilitating “environmental illness,” has infused “Dark Waters” with some of that film’s tangible unease. In “Safe,” it was never entirely spelled out whether the illness was real or if it was “all in her head” (or, somehow, both). But “Dark Waters” is a powerfully factual docudrama whose subject is nothing less than the poisoning of American life. The movie isn’t just an attack on corporate greed. It’s an exposé of the environmental corruption that we have all, to a degree, enabled over the years by worshipping products like Teflon, which make our lives easier, without asking enough about why they make our lives easier.
The film is splendidly shot, by Ed Lachman (you feel the chill of the office environments, the autumnal warmth of the nature that’s being despoiled), and the acting is superb. Ruffalo makes Robert a blunted conventional grind of a man who slowly wakes up. Anne Hathaway goes further than we’re used to in showing you what the loved ones of a hero like this have to endure (her performance is a piercing dance of agony and loyalty), and Bill Camp takes the role of Wilbur, the farmer who started it all, and creates something indelible; you won’t soon forget his gruff impotence-of-the-little-guy fury. Movies like “Dark Waters” always deliver you to the same place, to that shining land where David defeats Goliath. But not this one — it’s a feel-good movie and a feel-disturbed movie at the same time. But that’s what’s haunting about it. Todd Haynes has made the first corporate thriller that’s a call to action because you’ll emerge from it feeling anything but safe.