Dark Waters — the depressing movie about environmental illness that flopped after its release over Christmas and the awards season — is back, re-released for home video and streaming. But better than the activist story it tells, detailing how corporate lawyer Robert Bilott was drawn into waging a $16.5 billion suit against DuPont Chemical, is the clear demonstration of film culture’s dreaded and drab politicization — clearer than the polluted waters of its Pennsylvania and Ohio setting. Dark Waters’s failure is instructive.
The impulse behind this film has nothing to do with creativity, even though the director, Todd Haynes, made his reputation with artsy movies that applied academic Marxist ideology to such pop issues as gay oppression (Poison), queer pop culture (Velvet Goldmine), female oppression (Far from Heaven), psycho-ecology (Safe), mythic activism (I’m Not There), and lesbian romance (Carol). Haynes recently has pulled away from his fashionable hipster niche and gone deeper into outmoded self-righteousness about luckless sufferers (Wonderstruck). Few media hucksters cared about that aspect of Haynes’s progressivism. He may be sincere, but this movie about the travails of white working-class ecological victims just ain’t hip anymore now that the trans movement has flip-flopped gay identity, Millennial black youth assert that lawlessness matters, and women proudly declare themselves “nasty.”
In short, Haynes has lost his progressive cred. In 2011, he made an HBO miniseries of James M. Cain’s old-fashioned Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet, rather than, say, a series starring Denzel Washington in a timely adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s ground-breaking bestsellers about black down-low romantic subculture.
Haynes falls back on political activism in Dark Waters, and his cinematic ambitions drown in superciliousness, as personified by lead actor Mark Ruffalo in the role of Robert Bilott. If you’ve ever seen Bilott speak, such as in his public lectures broadcast on C-SPAN, he shows a reasonableness beyond anything Ruffalo could imagine. Ruffalo scrunches his face to play a man with a mission, a political prophet consumed with zeal. It’s obvious from films such as Foxcatcher and Spotlight that Ruffalo has given up on portraying average human experience; outside of his Marvel Comics payday as The Hulk, he’s dedicated to teaching audiences how they should think and what they should care about. He turns his social convictions into sanctimony, making Bilott pouty: “The system is rigged! They want us to think it will protect us, but that’s a lie. We protect us — nobody else!”
Haynes doesn’t control Ruffalo’s conceitedness (which director Lisa Cholodenko treated as studly magneticism in The Kids Are All Right). Weepy, anguished Ruffalo (he portrays Belott as subject to fits known as transient ischemic attacks) has lost the ability to portray normal behavior. Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, and Victor Garber humanize their roles as American bureaucrats, avoiding the political caricatures that have become Ruffalo’s obsession.
The activist righteousness in Dark Waters copies the smug antecedent of All the President’s Men — there are secret meetings in dark parking garages, complete with “tension” music. Haynes’s derivativeness betrays his lack of a human touch. The film never conveys the 3,535 cases and DuPont’s $670.7 million settlement in relatable terms. The mysterious acronym PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid, DuPont’s household element that caused so much sickness and death) is never clearly explained.
The aim of Ruffalo’s special pleading and Haynes’s detachment is to dismantle American democracy (“Our government is captive to DuPont!”). Despite encouraging “the largest epidemiological study in human history,” Ruffalo’s Bilott cynically doubts the “possibility of getting the public to believe in government or justice.”
Dark Waters is based on the article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” from the New York Times, source of much activist moviemaking and fantasies of empowerment and resistance. It’s worth knowing how Dark Waters fails, and that its morale-lowering tale is a corruption of pop culture.