The real-life horrors of the Parkersburg, West Virginia, water crisis get a strong cinematic treatment from director Todd Haynes with Dark Waters, an earnest legal drama that spares us lengthy courtroom sequences in favor of in-depth looks at those affected on all sides of the case.
Mark Ruffalo headlines the movie as Rob Bilott, a corporate attorney visited at his posh office one day by Wilbur (Bill Camp), a friend of his grandma's. Wilbur, a lifelong farmer, shows up grumbling like a crazy person with a lackey by his side and a box full of beat-up videotapes, screaming about dead cows and chemicals. Rob dismisses this agricultural Quint from Jaws, gets back to his meeting, and goes about his mostly comfortable day.
The encounter with Wilbur eats at Rob, who investigates further and eventually winds up on Wilbur's farm, where close to 200 cows have perished due to symptoms like enlarged organs and tumors. Wilbur thinks it's from the water in the stream—and he's right.
DuPont has been dumping toxic chemicals near Wilbur's farm for years, ever since they brought Teflon to the American public decades earlier, and Bilott is very familiar with the company, even being friends with Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), a company lawyer. They have cordial discussions about Wilbur and his cows at first, but those discussions escalate into a lawsuit followed by larger class-action suits as the people of Parkersburg become aware of the chemical plague that has been infecting their drinking water.
What makes this film work so well is its ability to avoid courtroom drama stereotypes. Ruffalo's Bilott is a well-meaning, but flawed guy, who is a little slow on the uptake at first, and prone to medical emergencies because he can't take the pressure. Tom, his boss (played by a strong Tim Robbins) is alternately supportive and demanding, not the typical top banana lawyer monster that often resides in these movies.
Ruffalo, who has been making the big money as Bruce Banner/Hulk in the Marvel movies, was a solid actor before he went green, and he remains one. He has a WTF face in this film that just says it all as he encounters one atrocity after another.
Even though much of what happened in Parkersburg is public record, Haynes manages to make his movie somewhat of a mystery, with slow reveals as Bilott digs deeper and gets closer to the truth. There are moments in this movie that seem innocuous and standard, but are revealed later on to be pivotal moments in bringing the case together.
I've known a few cow farmers in my time, and Camp gets all the elements right, plus the unfortunate element of raging disgust with a corporate America that is slowly killing him and his family. Wilbur's encounter with a family cow losing its mind is a heartbreaking one. Anne Hathaway adds extra dramatic heft as Rob's wife, Sarah, trying to keep the family normal as her husband goes off on a crusade that seems never-ending. She has some of the film's more intense moments as she plays equal parts supportive and “get your shit together” enforcer.
The movie makes you think about a lot of things we take for granted, like non-stick surfaces in our cooking ware, or swimming holes where we go for dips without really factoring in their location or content. This case was another blight on the unstoppable DuPont, a big company with a lot of problems, another one of them captured memorably in 2014's Foxcatcher (which also starred Ruffalo).
Some of the more shocking details by film's end include the fact that most humans have traces of chemicals like the ones that polluted Parkersburg waters in their blood. Dark Waters is a stark reminder that there are moneymaking entities out there who could give a rat's ass about your well-being. That's scarier than any horror movie.