Based on true events, Ruffalo plays corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilott, a native West Virginian now working for an upscale Cincinnati firm. He makes a living defending big companies but when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a friend of his grandmother shows up complaining that chemical giant Dupont is poisoning his livestock, Bilott is at a loss for words. “I defend chemical companies,” he stuitters. “Well, now you can defend me,” replies the plainspoken Wilbur.
Bilott knows the farm. As a kid he rode horses and milked his first cow there and even though the he doesn’t think he can help, he agrees to have a look. On the land he finds horrifying things. 190 cows dead, many born with birth defects and tumors. Wilbur is convinced that runoff from a nearby landfill is responsible. What was once a pastoral paradise is now a poisoned plot of land.
To paraphrase the famous John Denver song, country roads lead Bilott back home to place he belongs, defending a farmer done wrong by a conglomerate more concerned with profit than people.
“Dark Waters” is about accountability. Bilott spends more than a decade of his life, putting his health and family life at risk to take a corporate Goliath to task for their irresponsible behavior. Ruffalo does a good job at portraying the Bilott’s decline as he is worn down by the tactics of his foe, the impatience of the people he is trying to help and his inability to force the power brokers to play fair. It humanizes a story that otherwise would be a high level legal procedural.
Director Todd Haynes shoots the story in drab tones that echo much of the colorless work—i.e. cataloguing the mountain of paper sent over by Dupont in the form of discovery. It doesn’t make for a compelling looking film but it helps set the scene and tone. Fighting back isn’t glamourous work. It’s about late nights, crappy food and a constant feeling of exhaustion.
“Dark Waters” isn’t a thriller. From the first frame there is no question about who is guilty. The question here is how guilty and will they ever pay for what they have done? It is geared to outage and infuriate, to underscore that the big guys don’t always win. It is marred by a leisurely approach and some paper-thin characterizations, but the David and Goliath story is compelling.