Most adults over the age of 40 will remember the moment when Teflon became the new asbestos. It was a common household product, which most famously coated frying pans and other kitchen cooking items, and was discovered to be toxic and highly dangerous. The revelation shocked the world as media reports dominated the headlines, with stories of deformity and death terrifying consumers.
The story of Teflon’s demise is told in Dark Waters, a new legal drama that chronicles one lawyer’s 20-year odyssey to expose the corporate cover-up and corruption by Teflon’s chief manufacturer, DuPont, and seek justice for the thousands of victims. [It’s important to note that the current form of Teflon, as used in millions of households today, is non-toxic and poses no risk. You’re safe!]
Mark Ruffalo leads the film as Robert Billot; the corporate defence lawyer for the chemical industry who switches sides after responding to the pleas of a West Virginian farmer whose property was located beside one of DuPont’s landfill sites. Witnessing death, disease and hysteria amongst the cattle, Billot begins to look into the case and discovers that the entire town’s water supply is contaminated and that thousands of people were in serious risk of terminal illness. What follows is a David vs Goliath case, which puts his firm and family under incredible pressure.
Director Todd Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven) approaches the story by the book. His direction is very much by the numbers and doesn’t tread any new ground, thus opening the film to immediate comparisons to Steven Soderberg’s incredible Erin Brockovich and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker. Of course being a true story with a systematic legal lineage, there is only so much Haynes could do to heighten the drama, and he does an adequate job of it.
As the narrative spans over 20 years, the story unfolds at a meandering pace. Attention is given to the shocking discoveries, followed by the internal rigmarole, with the drama emphasised by an effectively sombre score by Marcelo Zarvos (Fences).
Ruffalo is excellent as the naïve lawyer who bites off more than he can chew, yet carries the torch with persistence and pride nevertheless. His turn is understated and Haynes effectively exploits his famously forlorn demeanour. As the case drags on, his character gradually succumbs to the pressure, and Ruffalo delivers his performance reservedly and subtly.
The supporting cast is an impressive ensemble of heavyweights including Anne Hathaway as Billot’s ever-tolerant wife, Tim Robbins as his moderately sympathetic boss, and Victor Garber as the CEO of DuPont. They deliver steely performances and are all given the opportunity to flex their dramatic muscle. All three enjoy dramatic scene-stealing moments and give the film added gravity. Notable additions to the cast include Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham and an exceptional turn from an unrecognisable Billy Camp, as the farmer who set the whole affair in motion.
The production design is perhaps a little too reliant on a wintery grey veneer, and there are certainly moments that have you thinking, “why not turn on a light?” The dark and dank atmosphere that strives for a David Fincher-like aesthetic is somewhat misguided, however the public interest factor in the Teflon story more than compensates for any stylistic misgivings.
The social justice legal thriller is a tried and true formula, as proven with films like the aforementioned Erin Brockovich, North Country and Silkwood. And while Dark Waters isn’t quite in the same league as those titles, it’s definitely a worthy running mate.
In cinemas: March 5, 2020
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins
Directed by: Todd Haynes