Todd Haynes’ compelling law drama Dark Waters, based on a true story, is one of those films that enrages and frustrates; not because of any fault in the movie -its really quite excellent- but rather because its subject matter is so monstrous. Conspiracy theories are everywhere, its almost the religion of our age, some utterly preposterous, some quite beguiling- so much so that there is a tendency for it all to become just so much background noise. Dark Waters is a sobering reminder that not all conspiracy theories are fanciful, that some of them are not only true, but wilder than one can possibly imagine.
Thus more fuel to the fire: if Dark Waters, and its monstrous reveal that DuPont, an American chemical company, had been knowingly poisoning people since the 1950s through its toxic chemicals in its products (hey, Teflon anyone?), and covering it up for decades whilst making a billion-dollars every year, then how wild and fanciful are claims of danger to public health in Covid 19 vaccines or suspicious provenance of the virus itself? Conspiracy theories that are true inevitably lend sudden weight to others, for good or ill, and the alarming, to me at least, revelation that self-regulation is even a thing (its like asking criminals to police themselves) is enough to raise my blood pressure to new heights.
To be clear: if Dark Waters does anything well, it is in making the viewer angry. Angry at corrupt businessmen and corporations, and the armies of lawyers and legal firms that get rich defending them, and the politicians and government agencies that abet them. None, really, come out well in this film, blighting decades of American history and usurping any faith in the American Dream (or rather, offering a sense of what that American Dream has become: seemingly, everything is okay regards making money as long as you don’t get caught).
Of course, the upshot is, its not just American history: the saga here in the UK regards the terrible fire at the Grenfell Tower in London, and the horrifying reports of corporate malfeasance, apparent dodging of responsibility in authority and regulatory governance – the truth will out, we are assured, but will justice be done? One has to wonder.
So Dark Waters, then- well, its certainly more than the sum of its parts. One would expect an arresting courtroom drama and revelations of corporate misdoing, its almost a genre of its own, after all, albeit one seldom returned to in this age of superheroes and action blockbusters. In this respect, the film is a welcome throwback to the American Cinema of the 1970s, one that was more suspicious, more incisive and possibly more informative than the popcorn cinema it has since become. Moreover, it isn’t really a feel-good, right-beats-wrong law drama, more of a sobering ‘be worried, be concerned, feel unsafe, get angry’ drama for our times.
Director Todd Haynes is well-served by an excellent script and a marvellous lead performance by Mark Ruffalo who plays a convincing Everyman as Robert Bilott, whose life is turned upside down when farmer Wilbur Tennant ( wonderfully played by character actor Bill Camp) calls him about his livestock being poisoned: its literally one of those life-changing moments that has a clearly distinguished Before and After. Before, he was a slightly overweight, career corporate lawyer whose loyalty and busy work ethic saw him about to become a partner in his Cincinnati law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, in 1998. After, and he’s a man obsessed with discovering hidden truths and what it all means, challenging his personal views of Right and Wrong and justice and impacting his career and his family life. Initially he is convinced it is innocent, accidental wrongdoing easily corrected, but as he digs his expectations are challenged, incensed by obvious neglect and decades-long corporate cover-ups of cancers, malformed children and widespread poisonings of livestock and humans on a truly horrific scale.
Perhaps the most horrific lies in the intimate: Wilbur Tennant, who himself ultimately dies of cancer related to the poisonings, had tried for years to get someone, anyone, in his area to look into his claims and it was only because of Robert Bilott’s almost quaint sense of familial loyalty (Tennant is a friend of Bilott’s grandma) that he looks into the case at all -at odds with is own boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) who questions why he bothers- and begins to uncover the truth. Its very likely that everything would have remained covered-up had Bilott not felt inclined to take an interest due to his personal values. Justice almost by accident, it seems. The alarming fact that it only came to light because of an individual, and that the authorities seemed naturally predicated upon backing the DuPont company, to the point of actually abetting it, seems to charge the most fanciful conspiracy theories with some credence. Who are we to believe? We are all in Dark Waters now.