Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo's legal thriller on SonyLIV, correlates heroism with tenacity
Dark Waters argues that heroism is not merely a moment when one person rises up to do the right thing.
Dark Waters released globally in 2019. It premiered for the Indian audience on SonyLIV on 18 September, 2020.
A 'genre' unto itself, there is a familiar moment that invariably crops up in most films where a lone lawyer is taking on an establishment. In this moment, lawyers ignore the rational voice in their head, put aside the terrible percentage of them winning, and decide to take up an uphill and (seemingly) unwinnable case... for what they believe is right.
In the hands of a crafty writer and director, it is a striking moment when the protagonist (usually) goes on to become a 'hero.' It could arrive in the form of Julia Roberts casually chancing upon some incriminating papers at the water board of a town in Steven Soderbergh's 2000 biographical film Erin Brokovich, or Tom Cruise taking a dramatic pause before pleading 'Not Guilty' on behalf of his clients (instead of accepting a deal) in Rob Reiner's 1992 legal drama A Few Good Men.
In Todd Haynes' blandly titled Dark Waters, a film adapted from a The New York Times piece The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare, this moment creeps up on us.
A farmer from Parkersburg (West Virginia) called Wilbur Tennant (a superb Bill Camp) barges into a law firm and contends he has lost dozens of his cattle because of a nearby landfill owned by DuPont Chemicals. "They've poisoned the river," he claims. Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a newly-promoted partner at the firm that defends chemical companies like DuPont, investigates the matter, and is handed a report that evaluates Tennant's farm as not meeting the required standards of sanitation. Bilott is not fully convinced, but this is not his case, and he just wants to be polite to a gentleman directed towards him by his grandmother. Tennant is furious after reading the report, but then stops and asks Rob not to move. Quietly getting hold of his gun, Tennant tells Bilott to get inside the truck behind him. A frenzied cow is staring down at both of them. She charges at them, which results in Tennant shooting her down. Bilott is visibly shaken by the visual of domesticated cow turning violent so unexpectedly, and it becomes the moment that spurs him to take the case. Despite his best attempts, he can no longer look away.
Mark Ruffalo's environmental activism has been well-documented in the past few years. It would be easy to dismiss Dark Waters as an extension to indulge the actor/co-producer's unfailing enthusiasm for his many causes. Nothing could be farther from the truth, because Todd Haynes' film does not play out like a sermon with the intent to 'educate.'
The biggest quality of Dark Waters is that it is such a superbly crafted film. And this artistry reveals itself in a scene where the Tennants come back after a medical check-up, and find their house ransacked. Wilbur had been preserving some of his dead cattle's organs as proof for the claim that DuPont has been systematically poisoning the river (where the cattle would drink water from). It is all gone now, and then the Tennants hear a helicopter hovering over their house, after which Wilbur steps out with his rifle and screams out of desperation. In the hands of a lesser director, the audience would be fed scenes of the theft, or at least be made privy to a prelude of the Tennant household being watched through binoculars. Director Haynes shoots the whole sequence from the gaze of his characters, letting it unfold in front of the audience like it (probably) did for the family. Hence, allowing us to feel their paranoia and vulnerability.
In a film like this, when the case gets going, we usually see a briskly-edited montage condensing all of the lawyers' preparations, after which we cut to inside the courtroom. Haynes seems more glued to the dull process of preparation. Like when Ruffalo's Bilott antagonises the regional head of DuPont Chemicals about a 'discovery' reports, he is sent a literal truckload of documents. "One person can't go through so many documents", Bilott's colleague is heard saying, to which he responds with "that's what they're counting on." He settles down in that office with post-its and a marker to serially arrange all the papers yearly. Unlike what many films would have us believe, it is not just the passionate monologues, but the mundane work of filing documents chronologically that ensues during legal battles.
Ruffalo almost seems to make a pronounced effort to rob Bilott off any charisma or style. He is done it before in role like that of Mark Rezendes in Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, where he played an investigative reporter. He is deliciously understated as Bilott, who barely responds to any kind of antagonism (including a loud 'f*ck you' in the middle of a gala dinner), which seems like a logical reaction by someone who has spent a lifetime keeping his head down, going about his work.
Playing Bilott's boss, Tom Terp, Tim Robbins is a solid presence through the film. Given Robbins' enigmatic face, it keeps the audience guessing whether Terp will turn into an adversary by the end. Anne Hathaway, playing Sarah Bilott (Rob’s wife), is treated surprisingly well, considering her character is, more or less, an archetype. Haynes depicts Sarah as an equal in Rob's crusade, which might sometimes mean her quiet, unquestionable support for her husband over nearly two decades, taking all the family chores on herself so that the husband can singularly focus on his work. Her meekness through the film is redeemed by the end, when she confronts Rob and Terp in two separate scenes.
Dark Waters is ultimately a paean to tenacity. It argues that heroism is not merely a moment when one person rises up to do the right thing. It is the ability to stick to your values over a long period of time, after being met with hurdles every few steps, through declining personal health, as your marriage falls apart, where you are an outcast, and still strive to do the right thing. In an efficient-yet-rousing finale, the judge recognises Bilott in a court proceeding, and says, "You're still here, huh?" Looking inscrutable as usual, Bilott says "Still here." Maybe that is what a hero is all about.
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