But it’s not a horror movie. There are no jump scares or slasher monsters hiding in your closest. Instead, the real serial killers are corporate greed, malfeasance and cover-ups.
Dark Waters is a legal drama, in the vein of Erin Brokovich but without a sassy Julia Roberts.
Based on a real-life case, this Mark Ruffalo-headlined film will have you rushing home, throwing out your Teflon pans and ripping up your carpets.
In 1998, environmental lawyer Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) is approached by gruff cattle farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) from West Virginia who says his cows are dying and he’s convinced the DuPont Chemicals plant in town is connected.
Robert initially isn’t interested – he’s a defence lawyer, not a crusader – but as a favour to his grandmother, who knows Wilbur, he ventures to the farm. Wilbur’s property is a graveyard; mounds abound where dead, diseased cows have recently been buried.
Robert agrees to do some digging to unearth an environmental report DuPont and the Environmental Protection Agency wouldn’t share with Wilbur.
The curious case of the dead cows leads Robert to discover a decades-long cover-up involving DuPont’s plant in that town, which specifically produces a synthetic chemical known as PFOA, or C8, which was created to coat army tanks in the war, but was redeployed for use on household goods, commonly known as Teflon (or Scotchguard by 3M).
DuPont has known since almost the beginning that PFOA is linked to cancer or deformities in babies after running tests on their own employees and animals.
Even worse, these synthetic forever chemicals are known as that because our organic bodies can’t break them down, so they stay in our systems. It’s estimated the majority of living creatures on Earth – near everyone in developed nations – have PFOAs in their bloodstream.
Remember – this is a true story, Robert is still fighting these cases today. When Dark Waters came out last year in the US, DuPont, which has since been acquired and then divested, suffered a stock price fall.
The reason Dark Waters is so effective at scaring the bejesus out of us is not just because it traffics in a loathsome truth – that the dangers of PFOA was buried because Teflon was a $US1 billion-a-year product and that large companies successfully lobby governments to suit their corporate agenda, like self-regulation.
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The film creates context and a fully realised world in which Robert’s female colleagues are called “lady lawyers” and that as the case and the years drag on, Robert’s family life with wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) and their sons become strained.
Ruffalo puts in a committed, persuasive performance as Robert, aided in part because you know that off-screen he is a bit of a crusading activist.
Dark Waters is a very different kind of movie for director Todd Haynes, who’s better known for films such as the visually lush Carol, Far From Heaven and Velvet Goldmine. Dark Waters is grimier and muted in its aesthetic and certainly more straightforward, propelled more by plot than unhurried character scenes.
The story focus works, and Haynes, directing from a script by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on a New York Times article by Nathaniel Rich, has created a complete package in centring Dark Waters on this character.
Let’s just say that if a scientist came at you with about 10 graphs telling you the same thing, it would be a much less compelling argument. That’s where storytelling comes in to home in on great injustices.
Dark Waters is as gripping as it is terrifying, and it’ll claw into your consciousness in the same way that poisonous forever chemicals have claimed squatter’s rights in your body.
Dark Waters is in cinemas from Thursday, March 5
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