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Obsessed loners taking on giant corporations make for riveting cinema, with the premise providing a perfect opportunity to highlight grave injustice. This time the loner is lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), the corporation is none other than DuPont, and the injustice is sure to get your blood boiling.
Ruffalo’s is anyway. He’s using the release of Dark Waters to raise awareness of this true story, hammering home the damage DuPont have done in interview after interview.
Bilott is approached by farmer Wilburr Tennant (Bill Camp) with a box of video tapes. Tennant claims that the powerful chemical company DuPont are polluting his land, turning the water supply toxic, and that his tapes prove it. Billot’s a corporate lawyer used to defending the likes of DuPont – not suing them – but there’s only so long he can ignore the devastation.
And boy is the impact of DuPont’s pollution depicted in the film devastating. Director Todd Haynes and his cinematographer Edward Lachman portray the farmland as a near post-apocalyptic wasteland, diseased and drained of colour.
It’s a stark contrast to the likes of Carol, Haynes’ 2015 romantic melodrama, with its warm colour palette and lush set design. Here, he refuses to shy away from the decay, closing in on the rotting organs and black teeth belonging to dead cattle that Tennant keeps as evidence of the injustice. It’s ugly, brutal and above all else completely unjust. This unflinching and even poetic portrayal of the suffering elevates Dark Waters above typical, well-intentioned David vs. Goliath fair.
Otherwise, it follows the usual conventions of the genre in a well-crafted but predictable fashion. Like Ruffalo’s journalist Michael Rezendes in Spotlight, another movie about investigating institutional injustice, Bilott takes a methodological approach, illustrating that fighting for what’s right can’t just rely on self-righteous fury but also takes dedicated, borderline obsessive hard work.
Also like Spotlight, Ruffalo’s performance is restrained and effective but adopts a few unnecessary tics – they may be inspired by the real life lawyer and journalist respectively but are distracting nonetheless. He speaks through gritted teeth in Spotlight and with a droopy lip in this while refusing to sit upright, slouching his shoulders in an exaggerated manner, going out of his way to portray the noble pursuit with as little glamour as possible. It feels a little over the top.
Still, watching Ruffalo and Camp argue is gripping as the committed farmer pushes the conflicted lawyer to forget his career concerns and do the right thing. He knows that it’s not easy but that’s no excuse.
Haynes doesn’t make it easy either. After over a decade’s worth of dedication, Billot’s efforts looks like they are going to finally pay off, he doesn’t let the audience indulge in catharsis for too long without complicating it and pointing out just how hard it is to stand up to the likes of DuPont. Dark Waters is just one small but powerful piece in the ongoing fight to hold corporations accountable.