Todd Haynes’ “Dark Waters,” about the prolonged, ongoing legal fight to uncover the environmental damage of cancer-inducing “forever chemicals” and hold their corporate makers accountable, is a sober and ominous docudrama. On its surface, it’s an unspectacular one. Its lead character, a corporate defense attorney played by Mark Ruffalo, is no Erin Brockovich. The movie, itself, is gray and murky like the toxic West Virginia waters that provide the film’s first gloomy sense of trouble.
But just the same, “Dark Waters” will, in its modest, steadfast way, make your blood boil. And that will do.
Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) is a West Virginia native and Cincinnati attorney for a large law firm, Taft Stettinius & Hollister, with a specialty in defending chemical companies. Just after he’s made a partner, a West Virginia farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) turns up in his office barking about his dead cattle and the DuPont plant next door. He dumps a box of VHS tapes at Bilott’s feet.
It’s only the mention of Bilott’s grandmother that gives him pause. Bilott’s colleague Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) overhears the encounter but assures Bilott discretion. “You can be from West Virginia, Rob. I won’t tell anyone.”