The Weekend Watch: Dark Waters

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The Weekend Watch: Dark Waters

Welcome to The Weekend Watch, a weekly column focusing on a movie—new, old or somewhere in between, but out either in theaters or on a streaming service near you—worth catching on a cozy Friday night or a lazy Sunday morning. Comments welcome!

It’s hard to go a single day without seeing a new sign of the corporate-driven apocalypse, the enshittification of this world and its public (and private) services thanks to the God of Capitalism, profit. Whether it’s about the film industry’s obsession with IP movies, our universities’ insistent investment in the military industrial complex or tech companies replacing every good thing in this world with artificial intelligence, there’s plenty to be pessimistic about on a large-scale level. And this specific kind of misery loves cinematic company, so let’s dive headfirst into the polluted deep end with the 2019 legal drama Dark Waters, recently added to Netflix.

Directed by Todd Haynes, who recently didn’t see jack squat at the Oscars for his excellent May December, Dark Waters recounts the real story of corporate defense lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), who is slowly pushed to the right side of history as he investigates and sues DuPont for poisoning the water, the air and pretty much every living thing that partakes of either. The salt in the wound is that Bilott is employed by a firm that predominantly works to keep chemical companies out of trouble, so he’s burning bridges just by thinking about the case—let alone fighting it tooth and nail for years.

Haynes captures this crushing, consuming obsession in sickly blues, grays and blacks. His movie takes place either in a snooty office allergic to this kind of work, an increasingly tense household, or in the unofficial company town that hates anyone disparaging their biggest employer. I got flashbacks to visiting my parents in Arkansas, where everything is owned by (and named after) Walmart’s Walton family. Arkansans don’t care if Walmart is perpetuating the opioid crisis (it is), they care if food is on the table in front of them while they try to kick this stupid painkiller addiction. Jamelle Bouie wrote something about Dark Waters on his Letterboxd account that stuck with me: “The true horror of capitalism isn’t just that it destroys lives, but that the people afflicted are thankful for the opportunity to work.” It’s in this world of small-scale injustices and globally destructive corporate decisions that Dark Waters exists, blackhearted, cynical and dog tired.

Dark Waters is the feel-bad version of Erin Brockovich, like if you woke up as Erin Brockovich and had to fight against Silent Hill’s contaminated groundwater. Bilott erodes as he fights this uphill battle, losing himself mentally and physically while watching his family (led by Anne Hathaway’s searing performance as his wife) grow beyond him. Ruffalo’s slumped, sad, lip-pouting turn is truly pathetic, yet surprisingly steely. A realistic read on the kind of man who would do this, and what it would in turn do to him.

Alongside him, the town he’s trying to inform disintegrates before his (and our) eyes. Cancer, birth defects, death, death, death. Weaseling around and afflicted by this are a stellar cast of supporters: Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, William Jackson Harper, Bill Pullman. They flesh out a grumbling, frustrated world populated by people who actually look like they’re from Parkersburg, West Virginia.

It is deeply difficult to watch Dark Waters and not want to blow up something important. Definitely don’t read all the investigative journalism the film’s crystal-clear script is based upon, because then that desire becomes unavoidable. Dark Waters, much like May December, was snubbed at the Oscars upon its release, possibly for a similar reason: that what it was saying was a little too based in reality, and a little too unflattering for those with lots of cash to throw around. Whether deconstructing the myth of the movie star, the myth of the method actor, the myth of true love, the myth of the stable job and the compassionate company, or the myth of the American Dream itself, Todd Haynes has been poking the country’s sores for years. Like Bilott, it might not have done him much good in the eyes of the upper crust, but for the rest of us, it looks like the most that anyone can do.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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