Sunday, December 8, 2019

Into the Storm: DARK WATERS

You know the legal thriller is really working when the faxing sequence is tremendously suspenseful and exquisitely cathartic. By the time it gets to that point in Dark Waters, the film had its hooks in me something fierce. It’s based on the true story of a lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who, after years as a corporate attorney for chemical companies, takes on the case of a family friend of a friend, a small-town West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows are dying off. He thinks it has something to do with the DuPont landfill next door. Intrigued, the big city legal expert pokes around in the case, and the deeper he looks, the darker the picture grows, until he’s convinced he has mountains of evidence proving the corporation has been covering up the danger of one of its most popular chemicals, and has turned a blind eye to the systematic poisoning of the community around its main factory. Ah, but proving it in a court of law, let alone getting fair settlements for the victims, is another thing entirely. A tense film of determined investigation and slow-boiling righteous indignation, director Todd Haynes fully inhabits the mode required of this sharp film of creeping dread and knife-twisting legal complications. Haynes is a filmmaker always sensitive to his character’s moods and attuned to the ways in which society’s structures affect them. Look no further than his swooning, ice-pick-pointed melodramas like Far from Heaven and Carol, in which prejudice and romance are inextricably tied up, or his underrated Wonderstruck, in which secret family trauma echoes across time, or his cult classic unauthorized Karen Carpenter movie Superstar, in which Barbies play all the roles as both experimental provocation and a soulful evocation of a pop star’s objectification made literal. In Dark Waters, the threats to the environment are slowly revealed through documentation and study, and the pollution oozes as sinisterly and secretly as the ways in which the companies maneuver to avoid responsibility. Shorn of overt message movie sentimentality, the film is grimly clear-eyed about how the struggle takes a toll on the human beings at its center, and is as determined as its lead to see it through.

The deeper it goes, the harder it is to shake. Ruffalo has a perfect exhausted energy, ground down by the system, even as he’s enlivened by his newfound purpose. He goes from being a comfortable corporate lawyer, to needing to pull apart the system from the inside out. He risks losing his good-paying job for daring to question the human costs of the business he once was paid to defend. His wife (Anne Hathaway) and children are sympathetic, but as the years stretch on with little progress, it’s hard to watch the toll it takes on him. How does one fight something so overwhelming, when those paid to ignore the problem can outspend and out-wait your efforts? Haynes understands this human fragility is both the reason for protections against corporate malfeasance, and for why it’s so difficult to make them count. He expresses this in the methodical turns of the story — a piercing stab of dread and regret as each new horror sinks in, and the futility of the attempts to fight it threatens to linger indefinitely — and in the blocking that emphasizes the quotidian lopsidedness of the struggle. One striking moment finds Ruffalo small in the frame next to his boss (Tim Robbins), a tall, imposing presence who is often sympathetic, but also conscious of the effect this hitherto profit-less crusade has on their other chemical-company clients. The shot accentuates their physical differences to highlight their unspoken power differential. Its this soft power of paychecks and workplace dynamics (the shadowy, fluorescent cinematography emphasizing sterile-yet-sickly boardrooms and business dinners as eerily as cattle’s illness) that’s discouragement as much as the overt corporate skullduggery and legal maneuvering. So, too, are the disappointed townspeople who see the dogged pursuit of accountability drag on and on without satisfying resolution, and, besides, doesn’t DuPont bring great jobs to town? (A host of great character performers fill out both sides of the case, with constant well-drawn human interest in the legal tension.) It’s no wonder, caught in the middle, our lead grows tired. Unappreciated, underestimated, under pressure, he’s weary. We see how it’s poisoned him; the only cure is to keep fighting for the truth.

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