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‘Dark Waters’ a low-key legal drama

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People often call films “difficult to watch,” but that term can mean different things to different people. Usually, it’s applied to movies that too graphic, whether it be in terms of violence or language or what have you, but sometimes, you get a movie that is difficult to watch because it forces you to learn or remember an unpleasant truth.

That’s the case with “Dark Waters,” the latest film from director Todd Haynes. It’s adapted from a 2016 magazine article by Nathanial Rich titled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” the story of one man’s tireless crusade to hold industry accountable when its actions are harmful to the public at large.

The story being told is one of malfeasance writ large and the years-long effort to right the wrongs that have been done. It’s also about the harm that obsession – no matter how righteous or just – can have on someone and the people around them. It is about corporate willingness to fight tooth and nail against anything that may stand in the way of almighty profit … and just how much it takes to stand strong in the face of “progress.”

Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo, “Avengers: Endgame”) is an attorney working at a top-tier firm in Cincinnati. His primary job is to provide legal assistance to corporate clients, a gig that is extremely lucrative for all involved, including the firm’s head Tom Terp (Tim Robbins, TV’s “Here and Now”). Robert is the sole breadwinner for his family; his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway, “The Hustle”) is also a lawyer, but has chosen to become a stay-at-home mom.

But Robert’s world is about to be upended. A farmer by the name of Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp, “The Kitchen”) shows up at his office with a box of videotapes and a wild-sounding story. Wilbur, who hails from Parkersburg, West Virginia (and who knows Robert’s grandmother, who also lives there), claims that the local DuPont chemical plant is dumping something that is polluting the groundwater and having an adverse impact on his cattle.

Robert agrees to reach out to a friend who does legal work for DuPont as a favor. Initially, all is well, but it isn’t long before things aren’t adding up. There are some big questions about what’s going on in Parkersburg – questions that the higher-ups at DuPont aren’t interested in answering.

Thus begins a decades-long quest, a Quixotic ramble through the legal system, filled with stops and starts. And the deeper Robert goes, the more he realizes that these actions have dire consequences. However, with DuPont’s army of lawyers and unending resources standing against him, every step is an uphill battle. And that battle takes its toll – on Robert, on his family, on his job … on his life. Yet he refuses to give in, committing wholeheartedly to the fight.

In most respects, “Dark Waters” is a pretty standard legal thriller. A very well-executed one, to be sure – Haynes is an incredibly talented director, while this is clearly a passion project of sorts for Ruffalo – but the beats and narrative arc will likely ring familiar to those who enjoy the genre. It isn’t the sort of film you expect from a filmmaker like Todd Haynes, yet he manages to put his own aesthetic stamp on a film that would seem to resist it. It’s a stylish, albeit straightforward film.

However, the true-life nature of its subject matter definitely changes the circumstances. People of a certain age certainly remember the scare surrounding Teflon and the health dangers associated with it; this film serves as a stark reminder that very few people were interested in the truth of those dangers ever becoming public knowledge.

Mark Ruffalo gives a perfectly rumpled performance as Robert Bilott. Playing these sorts of real-life figures is never easy, but Ruffalo’s a pro. He shuffles and mumbles, using vocal tone and body language to dial himself down and evoke the devoted desperation to the cause. Hathaway is good, though she’s not given much to do. Robbins is solid, as is Camp. So too is the wonderful collection of talent that makes up the ensemble – William Jackson Harper, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Louisa Krause, Victor Garber and so on. There’s a wonderful consistency to the cast, with everyone finding just the necessary energy.

“Dark Waters” isn’t the most exciting movie. These sorts of legal dramas rarely are. It’s not big or broad or sexy. None of that changes how good it is, though. It is an insular, thoughtful look at a very real story – one that has likely been largely forgotten, despite its continued importance (seriously – you’ll leave this movie wanting to throw out every nonstick anything in your home). It’s a well-crafted David-and-Goliath tale, a look at an underdog’s commitment to justice, no matter the cost – one that may make you consider some less-than-pleasant truths about the world in which we live.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 December 2019 07:04

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