The courtroom film has been a very prolific subgenre, managing to show the intricacies of American justice, with a frequent penchant for flair. The likes of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Verdict (1982), My Cousin Vinny (1992), and A Few Good Men (1992) focus on the triumph surrounding a court case, with the always dramatic closing statement. However, rarely do these films go into the elongated process of appeals and other legal truncations that powerful entities use, rarely does an actual case end with those closing statements. This more realistic and procedural side is shown in the condemning Dark Waters (2019).
Dark Waters is the newest Todd Haynes film, focusing on the true story of the Dupont chemical scandal. The film focuses on corporate lawyer Robert Bilot (Mark Ruffalo), who just made partner in his firm in Ohio in 1998, when he is approached by farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) asking for help in suing Dupont Chemical for poisoning his livestock’s water supply. Bilot reluctantly helps Tennant, given that he is an old family friend, and unadvertantly begins to unspool the horrors of a conspiracy.
Haynes is not a director known for taking on a mainstream approach, therefore Dark Waters is unlike the informational films about scandalous cases that one normally receives. In many ways, Hayne’s narrative style is much similar to the European auteurs, who aren’t perturbed by silence and prefer their actors to contain their performances. As such, Dark Waters is some of the most restrained legal filmmaking I’ve ever seen. There are no big speeches at court and the years of legal processes are wrought out in all their frustrated splendor. There is no glamor to Bilot’s story, instead most of the key moments in the case come in the most anticlimactic settings, on a quiet office evening he receives a key phone call or he comes to a realization while absent-mindedly staring at an “I Spy” children’s book.
The film’s focus is much larger than that of the Dupont scandal; in the end there is a believable case made against the toxicity of corporatism and the laissez-faire capitalistic style as a whole. When reading such a statement, one expects the tonal obviousness of a Michael Moore documentary, but Haynes is much more calculated and careful than that. The viewer dives into this story slowly, wading into the legal and chemical intricacies with simplified explanations that slowly drip evidence of a corrupt system. The characters rarely explode in screams, leaving an incredible amount of pent up anger and disbelief in viewers themselves. Haynes also, very subtly, frames the logos of various corporations as they pop-up in the story; one always gets a clear view of the gas station Bilot stops by, the chips that he’s eating, and restaurant chain that he attends. It’s a scary way to allude to an all-encompassing presence that huge corporations have in Westerners’ lives.
Narratively the film is as delicately crafted as any Haynes film, with a spectacular yet understated cinematography, which cheekily lingers on characters or objects just a second too long, nudging the audience towards a subconscious dread. However, the film did seem to struggle to balance between Bilot’s personal life and the enormous case that he’s dealing with. There are sufficient small scenes to build up the characters, so that they don’t seem one-dimensional, but the domestic-life portion of the film never grasps the viewer’s intrigue. Anne Hathaway plays Bilot’s wife Sarah, but she seems to be only an intermittent presence that is only given some significant weight in the finale. However, by then her character hasn’t had the opportunity to intrigue audiences like the legal portion of the film has. A notable performance from Tim Robbins as Bilot’s managing partner allows for a certain humanization from lawyers (yes, they’re people too), which detracts from this seeming like a liberal propaganda piece. Meanwhile, Mark Ruffalo brings about what will probably be the most underappreciated performance of the year. Ruffalo inhabits his Bilot with a slow-building pent up rage that you expect to explode at any moment, but he is able to keep a stopper on it and have viewers bubbling in his stead. His character arc is marked by minute changes, showing the slow weariness and breakdown of a moral man; he goes about adjusting his slouch and even his silences.
In the end, Dark Waters is a complex look at the corruption and greed of Dupont Chemical, and by extension the greater corporate world. It is refreshingly restrained and meditative, thanks to Hayne’s directorial hand. Narratively the film seems to stumble in placing a significant female presence, whose importance seemed to be trumped by the immensity and urgency of the case. Either way Ruffalo is able to deliver a minutely crafted performance that is able to transfer the responsibility of a catharsis onto viewers; thereby prompting the action and attention that the film set out to achieve on audiences.