It’s surprising that the New Queer Cinema pioneer, Todd Haynes’ (Velvet Goldmine, Carol) new movie, Dark Waters, is a clinical legal thriller—a frigid whistleblowing drama in the fashion of Oscar-winner, Spotlight. Starring in it is Mark Ruffalo, portraying a real-life lawyer, Robert Billot, who became the nightmare for DuPont de Nemours, Inc., a chemical company mogul. Based on Nathaniel Rich’s article published for The New York Times Magazine, the drama might remind us a bit of Erin Brokovich; but, there’s something more about this movie that makes it more important and, most importantly, relevant.
It’s a 126-minute docudrama compressing a long and winding legal process, which has been going on for almost two decades. It all started with Billot’s favor to return the call from Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp, exquisitely), a local West Virginian farmer, who accuses DuPont of dumping hazardous chemicals, which eventually kills most of his cattle. Ironically, DuPont is a client of Billot’s firm. There are shreds of evidence and there are multiple reports; but, none of them went through as if there’s an ominous force that withheld all the case against the company. Tennant persisted; DuPont persisted, and Billot decided to view the bigger picture. What he unraveled was a real-life horror and we all should fear it.
Ruffalo is excellent in portraying Billot’s persistence and frailty, at the same time. It’s a mission impossible for him; but, he decides to risk everything. His wife (Anne Hathaway) went on and off in supporting him; his firm thought that he might cost them the whole reputation for barking at the not-seemingly-wrong-but-too-powerful tree; even, his boss (Tim Robbins) began to lose his patience after years of supporting his cause. We can observe Billot’s deteriorating forms for investing too deeply in this case, just by looking at Ruffalo’s eyes.
Ruffalo guides us through the years (marked by timestamp) of struggles. Ed Lachman’s camera vividly captures the sense of impending doom and the lurking danger, which hides in the background and waits to be unraveled. There’s a sense of urgency seen by the camera movement, but, at the same time, the narrative is pacing differently. Some years might emanate more priority to the narrative; some years pass in one scene or two. During the heated years, Haynes captures the tension effectively—showing us some real anger and, at the same moment, sympathizing with the immediate victims. During the fast-forwarded years, we learn how quickly time flies without definite answers. With all these, Haynes makes us restless and anxious.
The true events Dark Waters depicted are heartbreaking and alarming; the movie captures those senses perfectly, presenting us with a riveting dramatization. The story never pictures Billot as a saint and it never needs to depict him in such a fashion. Haynes’ docudrama focuses on opening audiences’ eyes about the crime that capitalist moguls are willing to do to get themselves richer. In delivering the message, this whistleblowing story is undeniably tough to watch. Every truth unraveled is unstomachable and every irony is unbearable. All those things only make Dark Waters a more important post-truth drama.