Drama, rated PG-13, 126 minutes, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
Outrage mixes with despair in Dark Waters, an unsettling, slow-drip thriller about big business and the people who become its collateral damage. It’s a fictional take on a true, ghastly story about a synthetic polymer that was discovered by a chemist at DuPont, which branded it Teflon.
One of those seemingly magical substances of the modern age, Teflon was advertised as an “amazing new concept in cooking,” a 20th-century wonder meant to make life easier. “Choose a pan like you choose a man,” a British ad for a Teflon-coated pan suggested. “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
What was inside Teflon, anyway? In Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes, the answer starts with cows that belong to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a West Virginia farmer engorged with rage, whose animals (and livelihood) are horribly and inexplicably dying. The deaths are an enigma that becomes a murder mystery that, in turn, opens into a legal inquiry into corporate malfeasance and government accountability. Leading the charge is Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer in Cincinnati who defended chemical companies but becomes an unlikely crusader for the other side when he goes up against DuPont.
Wilbur has found Bilott through a connection to the lawyer’s grandmother (Marcia Dangerfield), who lives in West Virginia. It turns out that Bilott spent time as a child on Wilbur’s farm, which deepens the men’s alliance. And although defending small farmers isn’t in Bilott’s portfolio, he dives in. What happens next is by turns tense and turgid, unsurprising and appalling. Bilott confirms Wilbur’s worst fears: The local DuPont plant has been dumping toxic waste on land next to the Tennant farm. The waste has seeped into the soil and migrated into the creek that flows through the farmer’s property and supplies water for his cows, and the population beyond. This revelation leads Bilott to confront the DuPont powers that be and face down a larger nightmare filled with the misuse of science and the abuse of people.
Haynes, whose art-house breakout, Safe, focuses on a middle-class woman affected by environmental illness, infuses a sense of menace into the narrative. Bilott’s investigation and the ensuing legal fight, which drags on for years, make it clear that the poison has leaked far beyond this stretch of West Virginia. But at its strongest, the movie makes you see that the poison that is killing Wilbur’s cows and so many other living things isn’t simply a question of toxic chemicals. There is, Haynes suggests, a deeper malignancy that has spread across a country that allows some to kill and others simply to die.