I have no information about the development process of the new muckraking film Dark Waters, but I know just enough about Mark Ruffalo’s social media presence to hatch a theory that begins with the actor reading Nathaniel Rich’s article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”and puffing up, Hulk-like, as he imagined using his Marvel-built clout to fill movies screens with this tale of environmental activism in opposition to loathsome corporate malfeasance. Surely the time is right for a new Erin Brockovich.
In the film, Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, a corporate lawyer who specializes in defending polluters trying to elide regulations laid out by the EPA. When a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), from Robert’s West Virginia hometown, shows up looking for assistance, Robert’s initial reluctant turns into a welling responsibility to seek justice. The animals on Wilbur’s farm are beset by illness, and he blames a nearby DuPont plant. Robert seeks information from the company, first to assure Wilbur the company can’t be the culprit. Soon, though, Robert becomes convinced some of the products and byproducts coming out of the plant are spreading cancerous poisons. Worse yet, evidence emerges that DuPont knows about the dangers and is actively engaged in hiding the truth.
As Dark Waters focuses on the long discovery process behind the case, it’s impressively engaging. In part because of the occasional slyly unorthodox visual slipped in by director Todd Haynes, working on the most conventional film of his career, the scenes that are most mired in exposition designed for maximum educational impact are also the strongest. The film is as locked into the cause as Robert (and Ruffalo), and the energy of that engagement shows. The more the screenplay (co-credited to Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) layers in obvious attempts at heightened drama, the more strained it becomes. Aside from Robert and Wilbur, the other characters are so loosely drawn that they careen between world views, depending on the fleeting needs of the script. Poor Anne Hathaway, as Robert’s wife, is burdened with playing about five different characters with no connective personality in sight.
Dark Waters is flawed. It also feels valuable. Agenda filmmaking is difficult to pull off, hopelessly prone to becoming a leaden procession of arguments, like a high school debate competition. By treating his unruly sensibility and a more straightforward approach as if they’re so similar that they overlap without causing a riffle of discomfort, Haynes elides the sullen self-satisfaction that so often sinks this kind of film.