Outrage mixes with despair in “Dark Waters,” an unsettling, slow-drip thriller about big business and the people who become its collateral damage. It’s a fictional take on a true, ghastly story about a synthetic polymer that was discovered by a chemist at DuPont, which branded it Teflon.
A seemingly magical substance of the modern age, Teflon was advertised as an “amazing new concept in cooking,” a 20th-century wonder meant to make life easier. “Choose a pan like you choose a man,” a British ad for a Teflon-coated pan suggested. “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
What was inside Teflon, anyway? In “Dark Waters,” the answer starts with cows that belong to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), an West Virginia enraged farmer whose animals (and livelihood) are horribly and inexplicably dying on his pastoral-looking land. He has his suspicions about the cause, but the deaths are an enigma that becomes a murder mystery that, in turn, opens into a legal inquiry into corporate malfeasance and government accountability. Leading the charge is Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer in Cincinnati who defended chemical companies but became an unlikely crusader for the other side when he went up against DuPont.
Director Todd Haynes’ story opens in 1975, and young trespassers venture onto fenced-off property to go for a night swim. Soon after the swimmers splash into the dark, oily waters, they are rousted by a booming male voice of authority. Men in a boat marked “containment” glide in, spraying something on the slicked surface.
The time-hopping story then skips decades ahead to Wilbur and his brother (Jim Azelvandre) carrying a stash of videotapes into Taft, Bilott’s bustling firm. Wilbur has found Bilott through a connection to the lawyer’s grandmother (Marcia Dangerfield), who lives in West Virginia. It turns out that Bilott spent time as a child on Wilbur’s farm, which further deepens the men’s alliance. Bilott dives in. Defending small farmers isn’t in his portfolio; but Bilott is a good guy, which the casting of the deeply empathetic Ruffalo has telegraphed from the moment his character appears.
Bilott’s investigation and the ensuing legal fight, which drags on for years, make it clear that the poison has leaked far beyond this stretch of West Virginia. But at its strongest, the movie makes you see that the poison that is killing Wilbur’s cows and so many other living things isn’t simply a question of toxic chemicals. There is a deeper malignancy that has spread across a country that allows some to kill and others simply to die.