Four years ago, Mark Ruffalo earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Best Picture winner, Spotlight. In Tom McCarthy’s brilliant procedural, Ruffalo was part of a team of journalists who helped to expose the Catholic Church and its calculated cover-up of sexual assault against children. Ruffalo’s passionate performance, coupled with the film’s deliberate, into-the-weeds style of showing all the hard work that goes into great journalism, made the film a powerful statement about how far good people have to go to expose the wrongs of society.
Ruffalo’s latest effort, Dark Waters, immediately and unavoidably invites comparison to Spotlight, as it too chronicles the yeoman’s work involved in doing right by those victimized by powered forces. And while Ruffalo’s character, Robert Bilott, isn’t as animated and dynamic as Mike Rezendes, he still gives a performance worthy of awards consideration.
That said, if you’ll forgive the pun, this film doesn’t shine as brightly as its spiritual predecessor. Part of that is due to different directorial styles, but I think, on a thematic level, the larger issue lies in the nature of our pro- and antagonists, which makes it a little harder to connect with the story on a deeper level.
A partner at a Cincinnati law firm that specializes in corporate defense, Bilott is on top of his game until he’s accosted in his office by Wilbur Tennant (a strong supporting performance from Bill Camp), a cattle farmer from West Virginia and a friend of Bilott’s grandmother. Wilbur’s cattle are dying off at an alarming rate, and he’s getting the runaround from the Environmental Protection Agency in trying to get some restitution and investigation into chemicals in the local water supply, as his town of Parkersburg is the site of a chemical plant owned and operated by DuPont.
After a considerable amount of haranguing, Bilott visits Tennant’s farm, where over 190 head of cattle have died in a relatively short span, and what little acknowledgment he can get from the government blames “farmer error” for the cows’ deaths, a significant development, since DuPont itself funded the study. Initially attempting to placate Tennant, Bilott takes his case and files an information lawsuit against DuPont as a formality, really hoping that the corporate friendships he’s built over the years – particularly with DuPont executive Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) – can amicably settle the dispute.
However, as Bilott quickly learns, there is way more to the story than he initially thought. The deeper he digs, the more he learns about DuPont’s methods, essentially a self-perpetuating cycle of corruption, bribery, and cover-ups of people and animals being poisoned in the name of product development and profit. Bilott’s professional relationships become strained as DuPont fights harder and harder to prevent the release of any damaging information, and even when they settle their cases, they try to renege. The case drags out for years, with Bilott taxing the support of his boss (Tim Robbins) and his doting wife (Anne Hathaway).
It’s a story well worthy of telling. Like many other major corporations out there, DuPont has all the resources to fight any lawsuit, all the money to rig the process in their favor, and all the time to wait out their challengers. It’s a classic David/Goliath story. The film adds some thriller elements to the overall plot, focusing on strong-arm intimidation tactics to silence Wilbur and others, particularly by flying a helicopter over his land to create noise, disturb his remaining animals (most of which go mad from their toxicity), and generally drive him insane. It’s a little out of place for such a serious procedural, but at the same time, the film makes a running gag out of being embarrassed to live in West Virginia, so take that as you will.
But the real devil is in the details, and this is where the film gets its closest to achieving what Spotlight did. DuPont attempts to bog Bilott down by giving him decades of documents to wade through, literally millions of pages. It’s meant to discourage him into dropping the case, but it’s in these very documents that DuPont seals its own fate. Good, well-meaning people who follow the rules and laws take copious notes for public and private record, and those very records are what contradict the narrative. It’s the tireless efforts to uncover the meanings of all this paperwork that gets you invested in what Bilott is doing, and in turn makes you root for him to succeed.
Now, again, this doesn’t really get to Spotlight‘s level. Part of that is because instead of Tom McCarthy at the helm, we have Todd Haynes, a wonderful independent filmmaker doing his most commercial project yet. In recent years he’s been most famous for I’m Not There, Carol, and the HBO mini-series quasi-remake of Mildred Pierce. All of these works take idiosyncratic looks at deeply personal and human stories, and this movie doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of intimate treatment.
But more importantly, what separates Spotlight from Dark Waters is in the heroes and villains themselves. In Spotlight, the team of journalists who work outside the normal news cycle dedicate themselves to the truth, no matter what it costs, and end up running head first into the Catholic Church, one of the most powerful organizations in the world, one that has a billion followers who believe it to be a universal force for good. It’s hard to reconcile that faith, that devotion, with the cold hard truth of what happened to all those kids. That’s compelling beyond measure.
Here, we have a lawyer. He’s a good lawyer, and he’s fighting a good cause. But as he himself points out, he’s a corporate defense attorney, and that before Wilbur hired him, he worked for people like DuPont. While his morality is swayed, his primary motivations before the outset of the film were the same financial ones as his clients. It’s a reminder that while Bilott did something wonderful for a lot of people, this didn’t exactly begin with him acting out of the goodness of his heart. He wanted to placate Tennant and get him out of his hair so he could go back to schmoozing with billionaires. The quest for truth only came when DuPont went out of its way to stymie him. That can – and again, forgive the wordplay – muddy the waters a bit from a thematic standpoint.
And then there’s DuPont itself, one of the biggest corporations out there, which has a history of not-so-great perceptions. Yes, their products have been innovative, but no one ever really looked to them as generous benefactors to their lives like they did with the Church. No matter how much you love their work, they’re still a company determined to make profit, which creates a detachment. Your relationship with DuPont – or any major company, really – is transactional, whereas your relationship with the Church is much deeper, much more personal. It’s your connection to God if that’s what you believe. No one would equate DuPont with the Almighty, and that was the case before the chemical in question in this movie – Teflon – became synonymous with crooked men escaping justice, like John Gotti and Donald Trump.
All that said, there are two elements of this that Haynes really gets right. One is how entrenched companies like DuPont can be in certain communities (I grew up in Delaware, where the company is headquartered, and they both directly and indirectly put food on my table for a good chunk of my childhood), and how that can be leveraged against the little guy. The Parkersburg in this film is a small town where DuPont is the largest employer, which means they have the PR machine to basically turn the whole town against Wilbur and anyone who supports him, which they do almost immediately. Again, they hold all the cards. They can just pack up and move their operations elsewhere, to more “friendly” communities, and put thousands of people out of work if they so choose. It’s capitalism at its most toxic, and it’s a practice that continues to this very day, with states and cities bending over backwards to tell the largest businesses that the rules will literally not apply to them so long as they set up shop locally and bring jobs. The recent “contest” to find Amazon’s new headquarters was the nationally embarrassing nadir of this trend. People just want to live their lives, work a good job, and be comfortable. When a faceless corporate entity threatens to cut that off – because Heaven forfend they or their stockholders take a small step back – it’s an instantly exploitable moment to turn the little guys against each other while the big guys continue laughing all the way to the bank.
This is where the film approaches Spotlight‘s level of prestige. Fight DuPont, and they take away your livelihood. Fight the Church, and they can withhold God Himself from you. It leaves you with an existential crises that both McCarthy and Haynes nailed. That leads to the second element where the film echoes its predecessor, and that’s the melancholy feeling of hopelessness. One of the saddest moments of Spotlight was at the very end, when a pre-credit roll listed all the cities and countries where there are massive degrees of sexual abuse by priests. It all sounds so daunting, like no matter how much good you do, nothing will ever change. That same feeling pervades the proceedings in Dark Waters, because no matter what Bilott or anyone does, no matter what cameos they get from case study children all grown up with their deformities, it’s not like DuPont will ever seriously be under threat of dissolution or destruction, but the people and our environment already are, and basically every time government cycles between the two parties, one or both sides will go out of their way to let them off the hook and give them endless regulatory and tax considerations to prevent them from outsourcing all their jobs overseas. It’s depressing, honestly, but it’s the work that has to be done if we’re to have any chance of surviving and achieving an equitable society.
So yeah, this is an important film, and yet another example of why we need hard-working people willing to take the risks necessary to speak truth to power and expose corruption. Mark Ruffalo does an admirable job of once again showing us the nuts and bolts of a massive investigation, and makes you feel both his personal and professional plight. As I said, this film doesn’t quite rise to the level of Spotlight, but few movies can. For what it is, this is a solid entry and an engaging story of both the financial and human toll corporate greed can take on “real” America. It’s not embarrassing to be from West Virginia, but it’d be nice if they’d stop voting against their own interests once in a while.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy procedural movies like this? Why is Mark Ruffalo always such a good actor when he’s forced to look not hot? Let me know!