Combustible Celluloid
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With: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, William Jackson Harper, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Victor Garber, Bill Camp, Scarlett Hicks, Louisa Krause
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Mario Correa, based on an article by Nathaniel Rich
Directed by: Todd Haynes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images and strong language
Running Time: 126
Date: 11/22/2019

Dark Waters (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Poison Penalties

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Issue-oriented movies are pretty common at awards time, but this essential drama feels starker and truer than most, patient and unafraid, and stripped away of any kind of hollow self-congratulations.

In Dark Waters, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) works in Cincinnati for a big law firm that specializes in defending big chemical companies. On the verge of getting a promotion, he receives an unannounced visit at the office by a farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Tennant, who knows Robert's grandmother, wants Robert to help him figure out what has been killing his cattle. Out of a sense of duty, Robert visits Tennant's farm and is shocked by what he sees.

He decides to investigate the situation, sure that it will be wrapped up quickly. Before long he realizes that people, and not just animals, are being poisoned. After discovering the existence of a secret chemical, he winds up suing the massive company DuPont, a process that will eventually take years, test his marriage to Sarah (Anne Hathaway), and push his own health to the limit. But countless lives may be at stake.

Star Ruffalo is one of the keys to the success of Dark Waters, which is based on 2016 New York Times Magazine article; he burrows deep into a realistic, non-movie-star performance, as well as producing. But the production's ringer is director Todd Haynes, who is best known for his luscious, edgy soap operas Far from Heaven (2002) and Carol (2015), with their painterly color palettes. But earlier in his career, he dealt directly with sickness in films like Poison (1991) and Safe (1995); the latter had Julianne Moore as a woman suffering from some unknown, undefinable "environmental" disease.

That theme leads right into Dark Waters, and Haynes gives the new movie the same queasy, unsettling touch. In one scene, Robert questions a DuPont representative, showing him a photograph of a boy, Bucky Bailey, with drastic facial deformities, the child of a woman who worked at DuPont; the corporate stooge can't even look at it. Later, Haynes shows us the actual, real-life child, now grown up, asking us to really look and not turn away.

With the help of cinematographer Edward Lachman, Haynes treats the movie with an absence of color, focusing on airless board rooms, snowy, muddy exteriors, and a general sense of unhealthiness all around, as if the very air were toxic. As the movie goes, it becomes clear that there's no clear victor in this David and Goliath battle, and in fact, the war goes on.

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