Three years ago, New York Times reporter Nathaniel Rich published an article about a determined lawyer and his legal battle with one of the top chemical companies in the United States. His report became the basis for Dark Waters, a somber but essential legal thriller from director Todd Haynes.
Wilbur Tennant is a desperate man and his desperation has led him to Robert Billot. Tennant could not explain the tumor-ridden deaths of his cattle in Parkersburg, West Virginia. He suspects DuPont, a chemical company 35 times the size of the Pentagon and the main employer of Parkersburg. Tennant asks Billot to take his case. Unfortunately, he represents corporations and refuses the offer until Tennant mentioned that his grandmother is one of his acquaintances. Their first meeting led to an unprecedented legal battle against, essentially, a broken system.
The controversy is an unregulated material used in coatings like Teflon called the perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Billot filed a court order to force DuPont to turn-over all documents related to the chemical. Poring over thousands of memos and correspondences, he learned about workers in contact with the material developing illnesses and female employees giving birth to babies with various physical defects. DuPont knowingly dumped sludge in their open-pit landfills despite the alarming reports of their in-house research. This brazen act of corporate malfeasance contaminated the drinking water of multiple communities or around 100,000 people.
Haynes seems a curious choice to helm a legal thriller as he is associated with queer cinema and most of his films feature strong female characters. Dark Waters plays out like a regular legal thriller but with the subservient imprint of Haynes. There is an intense personal determination in Mark Ruffalo to bring the story of Billot to life. Passion projects have been the bane of many actors before—relying too much on good intentions instead of telling a good story.
Haynes smartly refocused the film on the cost of seeking justice instead of the heroics of one man. Ruffalo sits alone in a room perusing thousands of unfiled documents. He is tired but does not complain and simply moves on from one file to another. Billot carefully builds his case like a patient bricklayer. The pressure to deliver has taken a toll on his health, his family, and his professional career. He is left frustrated and his righteous anger depleted. Ruffalo has the aura of the classic little man and puts it to good use essaying the role of Billot.
In true little man fashion, Billot fought many battles throughout the film. He had to argue with his boss Thomas Terp (Tim Robbins), to take the case even if their clients include chemical companies. He had to beg his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) to be more patient with him despite choosing to sacrifice her career and take care of their children. He had to gain the confidence of the people of Parkersburg even if he spent his childhood there and is essentially one of them. Billot has a quixotic quality about him, except he is right about the giants.
Most legal thrillers are slick productions with brash lawyers engaged in electrifying courtroom scenes. Dark Waters, in contrast, is a dreary affair that takes its audience into the tedious process of case-building and the oppressive realities of court battles. By the end of the film, you will leave the theatres admiring Billot, hating corporations, and throwing out your non-stick frying pans.