Heroes don’t always wear a cape, which is the basic spine of “Dark Waters,” a slow-flowing, moderately satisfying movie about a real-life corporate scandal that defiling the environment, and the low-key attorney who doggedly led the fight against it.
Said scandal involves DuPont, the chemical company, which put the lie to its “Better living through chemistry” slogan by poisoning the residents of Parkersburg, a West Virginia town and home to one of its plants, with the byproducts used to make Teflon. The attorney — played by Mark Ruffalo — is Rob Bilott, an Ohio insurance-defense lawyer who puts his personal and professional life at risk, after being reluctantly drawn into the case.
Indeed, Bilott is basically minding his own business when an ailing farmer (Bill Camp) shows up in the late 1990s, having been referred by Bilott’s grandma. After initially dismissing the guy, Bilott begins to examine the situation, finding evidence that DuPont not only created these unsafe conditions but did everything in its considerable power — as a major employer in the state — to conceal the harmful effects.
Bilott’s crusading creates trouble at work, where his boss (Tim Robbins) is sympathetic, but not fully supportive; and at home, where his wife (Anne Hathaway worries about Bilott endangering the family’s financial stability.
“Dark Waters” is directed by Todd Haynes, a name normally associated with stylish independent movies, such as “Far From Heaven” and “Wonderstruck.” Here, he’s in much more conventional territory, hewing closer films like “Erin Brockovich,” involving plucky underdogs battling against corporate behemoths.
In the press notes Haynes cites ’70s movies like “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men” as inspiration, but the pacing could hardly be called a thriller. Much of the movie, in fact, involves the hard labor of identifying chemicals with names like “PFOA” and “C8,” and explaining how and why it can kill you.
Yet that sluggish narrative — as Bilott’s pursuit grinds on and the years tick by — is presented with purpose, highlighting the epic nature of the struggle. DuPont’s whole strategy, in fact, was to wear down its opponent, which turns the lawyer’s determination into his superpower.
Ruffalo is in his wheelhouse as an everyman committed to doing the right thing, conveying an appropriate sense of outrage when he exclaims that DuPont is “knowingly poisoning us.” The actor also produced the film — adapted from a New York Times magazine article titled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” — which dovetails with his progressive activism.
Beyond the fundamental horror of corporate greed trumping public-health concerns, the movie — while often bleak and unsettling — does find hope in the idea that one ordinary guy can make a difference. “Dark Waters’” message, though, is something bigger — namely, that turning the tide is a task that will ultimately require a commitment from all of us.
“Dark Waters” premieres Nov. 22 in the US. It’s rated PG-13.
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