“Through our science, our people, and our communities, we pledge to constantly improve and innovate more sustainable ways of contributing,” reads the grandiose PR copy on the website of chemical company DuPont. “This is our commitment to our shared humanity and to helping every community thrive for generations to come.” That’s hardly the only place on the site that the Delaware-based company—which has just under 100,000 employees and, in 2018, made $86 billion—makes sure every visitor knows about DuPont’s steadfast commitment to “inventing a better now” and how they’re working hard to “empower the world with the essential innovations to thrive.”
There’s a reason DuPont’s so desperate to make a good impression: Up until a few years ago, the company was refusing to pay up for knowingly poisoning its employees and consumers over the course of decades with substances the company knew caused multiple kinds of cancer, birth defects, thyroid disease, and more. Despite warning after warning, DuPont kept churning out goods containing the toxins, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence those products were both incredibly popular and incredibly lucrative. The company made $1 billion a year from the substance officially known as perfluorooctanoic acid—a “forever chemical” that the human body can’t break down, which was marketed under the decidedly easier-to-pronounce name Teflon—before it was revealed how extraordinarily dangerous it was. Everyone threw out their Teflon-coated cooking pans, but the damage was already done.
As infuriating and horrifying as the subject matter of Dark Waters is—it’s based on “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” a 2016 New York Times Magazine story by Nathaniel Rich—it is, in many ways, another paint-by-numbers, based-on-a-true-story legal thriller. Here, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer with a history of representing chemical companies, switches sides to reveal DuPont’s decades of catastrophic malfeasance. It’s a long battle, and Dark Waters takes its time, setting up the case’s complexities while also fitting in the genre-mandated tropes: A delicate but driven score that sounds like the same delicate-but-driven score in every other fight-the-power thriller; a righteous speech (in Dark Waters, Tim Robbins gets the big one, and he takes full-throated advantage); an “Oh god if I turn this key is a car bomb going to go off” scene; and plenty of invectives like “The system is rigged!” and “They’re a titan of industry! They can do whatever they want!”
None of that stuff’s bad—it’s pretty much what any lefty who’s excited to see Dark Waters, including me, is happily signing up for—but there’s a catch that elevates this movie to something better than usual. Portland arthouse director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) oversees things here, capturing Dark Waters’ sickening story in chilly blues and jaundiced yellows while knowing exactly how to get the most from his cast. Ruffalo is Ruffalo—he’s always good—but here he disappears into the role of a reluctant crusader. And while both Robbins and Anne Hathaway initially feel like they’re playing surface-level caricatures, both actors bring a welcome depth to their turns as Bilott’s boss and wife. Most remarkable of all is Bill Camp, who plays Wilbur Tennant, the rancher who tips Bilott off to the case by lugging a cardboard box of VHS-taped evidence into Bilott’s high-class office. With an iron-browed scowl, an accent so thick it could be subtitled, and a jarring fury at what DuPont has done—to his animals, to his land, to his family, to his town—Tennant brings a deeply affecting touch to a procedural that could have otherwise been bogged down in procedure.
Haynes ably handles those procedures—there are some grade-A montages of hardcore paper-shuffling—but Dark Waters’ best moments are those that give glimpses into the individuals most hurt by DuPont’s crimes. (In a telling touch, several real-life figures pop up in small roles.) As the decades pass, we get to know several of these people, just as we get to know, via their actions and inactions, those running DuPont. The result is a movie that works both despite and because of its formula, and a movie that remembers what DuPont, despite its hollow, faux-inspirational PR copy, decided to ignore: That it’s people, and what happens to them, who matter.
Dark Waters opens Tues Nov 26 at various theaters.