Focus Features

The pensive legal movie was once a Hollywood standby, reliably delivering courtroom tension, grandstanding performances, and a satisfying assurance of justice that was only enhanced when the story behind the script turned out to be true. Todd Haynes’s new film, Dark Waters, fits that bill: It chronicles the Cincinnati attorney Robert Bilott’s ongoing efforts, beginning in the ’90s, to expose how the company DuPont continued to use toxic chemicals for decades after learning that they caused fatal diseases. As a piece of pure exposition, Dark Waters is interesting enough. But around the hard work and do-goodery, Haynes also provides a sense of crushing dread—the kind of unsolvable paranoia these procedure-bound movies usually work to counter.

Haynes, one of American independent cinema’s most vibrant and challenging directors, isn’t an obvious choice for this project. His most memorable works, including Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, and Carol, are period pieces about life on the margins of American society, resplendent with lush costuming and precise camera aesthetics. Dark Waters, by contrast, has a gray, washed-out color palette and is mostly set in boardrooms and offices, where its rumpled hero, Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo), tries to get to the bottom of DuPont’s business practices. Still, Dark Waters has plenty in common with one of Haynes’s best films: 1995’s Safe, an uncomfortable psychological drama that stars Julianne Moore as a woman who is suddenly besieged by symptoms that make her day-to-day life complete torture. In Dark Waters, the illnesses are more commonplace (mostly cancers and birth defects), but the mundanity becomes similarly frightening. The dull details of American existence—bathing, cooking, drinking water—are weaponized in unseen ways that even doctors can barely understand.

The cases Bilott investigated and eventually bundled into giant class-action lawsuits involved PFOAs. These industrial materials are best known for their use in Teflon and other nonstick pans but are also present in upholstery, carpeting, sealing agents, and textiles. Produced by DuPont since the ’50s, PFOAs have only recently been acknowledged as potentially toxic, particularly for factory workers who might have worked directly with them. Bilott is tipped off to the danger when a West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp) calls asking for help, saying his cows are dying at rapid rates and DuPont, a local employer, is to blame.

As a corporate lawyer, Bilott is used to defending chemical companies, not suing them—but he takes the case on nevertheless. When Bilott starts digging deeper, Haynes leans into the bleakness of the investigations. Bilott pokes around in towns that are either beholden to DuPont or have been forgotten by the company; back in the halls of power, he buttonholes DuPont executives like Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), trying to get answers using his legal clout. With the case dragging on for years, Haynes starts to pile on the fear and mistrust, showing how DuPont tries to flood Bilott with data to keep him far from the truth.

Ruffalo, whose personal passion for this story helped put it on-screen, is the perfect unassuming hero, bringing a sort of shambling intensity to Bilott and asking questions in a probing mumble. He’s like a middle-management Columbo, shuffling up to craven businessmen and quietly asking them how they sleep at night. As in any good legal drama, there’s a talented ensemble of characters whose patience Bilott tests with his persistence: Tim Robbins plays an understanding but frustrated boss, Anne Hathaway a supportive but frustrated wife. Bill Pullman is the Bilott team’s showboating West Virginia trial lawyer, who celebrates success in the courtroom by snapping his suspenders with satisfaction.

Dark Waters nails all those details, gratifyingly depicting how a legal case gets built piece by piece, month by month, until it’s an unstoppable force. But the movie’s biggest triumph is Haynes’s skillful portrayal of how a monolith of American capitalism can plow through human lives with near impunity. The people working at DuPont are corporate cogs, almost insufficiently evil compared with the damage they’re indirectly wreaking. Dark Waters is about how companies can function in a manner that’s both criminal and incidental, causing people to suffer through the water they drink and the air they breathe. Such dangers are chillingly ordinary, and as this movie makes clear, they’re not going away anytime soon.

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