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Dark Waters

A while back, I found a thread on Twitter about certain YouTube critics who popularized the notion that subtlety is a requirement for any kind of intellectual message in cinema. In my own personal estimation, all that matters is that an argument is made in a way that’s thoughtful, tasteful, and entertaining. Too much subtlety will make a good argument imperceptible or incomprehensible. And being too blunt will only show how godawful a bad argument really is.

So here we are with Dark Waters, the latest movie from hometown hero Todd Haynes. Given his most recent efforts (namely Carol and Wonderstruck), it’s safe to say that subtlety was never much of a strong point for Haynes. It’s also a film from Participant, famously a company built for the specific purpose of releasing movies with overt sociopolitical agendas. Last but not least, this is a “true story” film about a corporate lawyer (Robert Billott, here immortalized by producer Mark Ruffalo), and his efforts at suing DuPont on behalf of a small town that’s been steadily poisoned by chemical runoff.

So basically, the premise reads like Erin Brockovich, but with a high-powered attorney in the place of a struggling single mother. Not exactly an upgrade.

That said, of course the cast is wonderful. We’ve got Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, and so many other rock-solid talents all playing directly to the Oscar voters. Anne Hathaway delivers a lot of angry tear-streaked monologues through gritted teeth, and Robbins’ “This is why people hate lawyers” scene is a highlight. And of course Mark Ruffalo is so firmly in his wheelhouse, he’s got no problem carrying the film.

They all turn in fine work, but the unsung hero here is absolutely Bill Camp in the role of Wilbur Tennant. Camp plays this angry and desperate cattle farmer as a salt-of-the-earth redneck from a flyover state, but never in such a way that the character feels like a punchline. I don’t know how Camp did it, but the result is fantastic.

However, it bears mentioning that the film runs from 1999 clear up until 2015 (not counting a prologue set in 1975). Obviously, the characters are supposed to age in that time, and we do get a few background developments to show the characters growing and developing as the plot unfolds. Even so, I never found myself entirely sold on the characters’ aging. It isn’t bad, to be clear, but the film suffers for placement next to The Irishman, in which everyone in the cast does a far better job showing how actors and makeup effects can portray advancing ages.

Speaking of which, the editing is sensational. Major kudos are due for taking so many events across such a wide time span and cutting them all into a coherent two-hour film. We even get a couple of expository montages cut together in masterful ways.

But let’s get back to my earlier point about subtlety. This is absolutely not a subtle film. The movie has a serious axe to grind about synthetic hydrocarbons that stay in the body forever and cause massive health problems because no metabolism on Earth has any natural way of breaking it down. (PFOA is the film’s go-to example, but trans fat is another commonly known one.) There’s never the least bit of doubt as to who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy here.

On the one hand, this is a multibillion-dollar chemical manufacturer dumping poisonous waste into the air and water, killing countless people and livestock as they churn out their best-selling product. There’s not a lot of moral or ethical ambiguity in this scenario. But on the other hand, such a straightforward scenario doesn’t exactly make for exciting storytelling or good cinema. What’s missing here?

Well, the promotions for this film openly invite comparisons to Spotlight, so let’s go down that road for a while. Right off the bat, I can spot three crucial distinctions.

  1. Spotlight made an effort at tying in its subject to the greater world. Easily the best case in point came when 9/11 happened, diverting every journalist away from the Catholic abuse scandal and thus hobbling our characters by taking away precious time. It also underlined the stakes of the conflict by showing how the Catholic Church provides badly needed support and comfort during such catastrophes as 9/11. By contrast, Dark Waters is so tightly focused on telling a 15-year story in a two-hour runtime that there’s no time for side trips. Then again, it’s not like 9/11 or the Middle East wars or anything would’ve had much of an impact on this story anyway.
  2. Spotlight made an effort to actually get inside the collective heads of its antagonist. We got a couple of scenes in which the offending Catholic clergy and their defenders actively demonstrate their twisted bass-ackwards logic to explain and justify their pedophilia. Again, this was not an advantage that Dark Waters had, as “we want to cover our asses to keep making money and avoid criminal charges” is as straightforward and self-evident as it gets. Though filmmakers obligingly give us a couple of scenes to show just how badly this West Virginia town depends on the money DuPont brings in.
  3. Spotlight was bold enough to cast a bit of harsh light on the protagonists. The media could have blown this whole thing wide open ages ago, and the question is left open as to why they didn’t. Once again, Dark Waters couldn’t play that angle, because DuPont had everything on lockdown and there’s no way anybody outside the company could’ve known anything until bodies started piling up.

All told, I think that Dark Waters could be more aptly compared to Concussion, that Will Smith vehicle from a few years back. Both films were clearly more interested and better-equipped to make a sociopolitical argument as opposed to telling a good story. In both cases, the morality is so straightforward that there’s never any doubt as to what the message is or how the story is going to unfold. Thus the filmmakers are left scrambling for any kind of viable tension or conflict, hoping that the charismatic cast and the passionate monologues about this Very Important Topic will be enough to hold the audience’s attention.

Yet Dark Waters still has a problem that neither Concussion nor Spotlight ever had to deal with: A shit third act.

Long story short, our protagonist files a class-action lawsuit against DuPont, and it ends with the commission of an independent scientific inquiry as to the presence and possible effects of PFOA in the human bloodstream. So much data was generated that it took seven years to sort through it all. Seven years in which our characters are basically sitting on their hands, waiting for the study to be completed. The plot is at a standstill during the entirety of the goddamn third act, when the stakes and drama should be at their greatest!

Consider that this is the largest epidemiological study in modern history. It directly addresses the same events and themes of the greater film. There’s an entire town and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake here, and maybe untold millions of lives as well. It takes place over seven years — half the greater movie’s time span! — and it happens entirely offscreen.

I guess what I’m asking is, where are all the scientists and why am I not watching them instead? Where the hell is their movie?

Dark Waters is a perfect example of “boringly good” cinema. The presentation is solid, with a wonderful cast and crew all around, but it’s straightforward and by-the-numbers without much of anything in the way of surprises or innovations. I’d be on the fence about recommending this one, if only the film didn’t spend its entire third act treading water.

This is absolutely one for the awards completionists. And even then, I’ll be disappointed if it gets any nominations, because Oscar-hungry filmmakers should have to try harder than this.

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