Getting a film made in Hollywood is harder than one might imagine. Certainly, having some star power attached to a film gives it a helping hand. But it helps when a star of significant clout fights for a film to be made. Then, audiences stand up to listen to the story that has prompted such enthusiasm. American actor and producer Mark Ruffalo has a well-worn and well-known face and his passion to bring to the screen the true story of corporate lawyer Rob Bilott’s fight for justice against the chemical company DuPont has produced an enthralling tale.
Based on The New York Times Magazine feature, ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare’ by Nathaniel Rich, Dark Waters begins when farmer Wilbur Tennant visits Bilott (Ruffalo) with a box of video tapes. Something has killed nearly 200 of Tennant’s cows, and he suspects the culprit to be chemical by-products, used in the making of Teflon, buried in the landfill next to his farm.
Bilott has just been promoted and initially wonders if this case is both beneath him and ill-suited, given his usual corporate clientele, before taking on what was to become a game-changing law suit. Thus, begins a 20-year legal battle against one of the world’s biggest companies, traversing setbacks and failures towards a $671 million settlement.
Director Todd Haynes is better known as the creator of period pieces like 2015’s Carol with Cate Blanchett and 2002’s Far from Heaven with Julianne Moore. Here he has developed a showcase for the dogged determination of Bilott that, despite its length, never becomes anything less than gripping. Anne Hathaway, who plays Bilott’s wife Sarah Barlage, lends some family context to Bilott’s tale, making it clear that such a case deals a heavy cost to the relationships of those involved. It is to Ruffalo’s credit that his performance is suitably understated for such a serious tale, yet he remains a central focus of burning intensity.
What might have been a dry procedural tale becomes a film that exposes new twists at a rising pace. This David and Goliath story shows that justice and compassion are powerful companions and that even giant corporations can be brought to task when the truth is told.
Dark Waters, rated M, is directed by Todd Haynes and opened on 5 March.
Editor’s update (23/03/20): With non-essential services currently closed, look out for this film when it is released on streaming sites or DVD.