Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters,” about the prolonged (and ongoing) legal fight to uncover the environmental damage of cancer-inducing “forever chemicals” and hold their corporate makers accountable, is a sober and ominous docudrama. On its surface, it’s an unspectacular one. Its lead character, a corporate defense attorney played by Mark Ruffalo, is no Erin Brockovich. The movie, itself, is gray and murky like the toxic West Virginia waters that provide the film’s first gloomy sense of trouble.
But just the same, “Dark Waters” will in its modest, steadfast way make your blood boil. And that will do.
Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) is a West Virginia native and Cincinnati attorney for a large law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, with a specialty in defending chemical companies. Just after he’s made a partner, a West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) turns up in his office barking about his dead cattle and the DuPont plant next door. Nearly all his 200 cows have suffered enlarged organs and other deformities. A nearby creek runs from a DuPont landfill.
Bilott’s firm would prefer to have DuPont as a client, not a foe. But Bilott has warm memories of visiting the farms in the area as a child. And Tennant, gruff and furious, is hard to ignore.
The scope of the case grows exponentially. Bilott goes from a 1999 lawsuit on behalf of Tennant to a 2001 class action involving several West Virginia communities. He traces the pollution affecting Tennant’s fame to DuPont’s use of PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid.
The substance, which DuPont began using in 1951 by purchasing it from 3M, is used in Teflon for things like non-stick frying pans and for firefighting foam. By now, virtually every human and animal has traces of it in their system, whether it came through tap water or an umbilical cord. It never breaks down and can build up in the blood and organs. DuPont dumped thousands of pounds of PFOA in the Ohio River, while earning a reported annual profit of $1 billion for PFOA-related products. DuPont had been studying its worrisome effects on its own workers for decades — long before the Environmental Protection Agency knew of its risks.
The story behind “Dark Waters” is still unfolding, with ongoing debate in Congress and at the EPA on setting a national drinking- water limit.
The film distinguishes itself in intricately following the story of a toxic substance from a West Virginia backwater to ubiquity. Haynes has sucked much of the Hollywood out of the social-justice drama, while leaving certain touchstones. Supporting players like Anne Hathaway (as Sarah Bilott, Rob’s wife) and Robbins get the requisite moments befitting an “important” movie. Ruffalo, too, is already clearly adept at portraying the growth of obsession.
It can seem like there are too many exposes of corporate wrongdoing. While they could use some new angles, that’s not a problem. In fact, we probably need a lot more of these.