Starring Mark Ruffalo. Rated PG
More than the waters are dark in this timely, meaningful, but ultimately soft-landing environmental drama. For some reason, director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman (who helped him achieve stylish greatness in Carol and Far From Heaven, and did the same for Steven Soderbergh in the similarly themed Erin Brockovich) couldn’t be bothered to turn on the lights for this one.
Superficially, it’s appropriate that a fact-based tale bent on illuminating dirty secrets DuPont kept from the public for eight decades be shot through a lens bleakly. There’s no sun in the skies of 1998 West Virginia, scene of devastating pollution, and Cincinnati, Ohio, home of Robert Bilott, the corporate lawyer played well by Mark Ruffalo (who also helped produce). And things look even grimmer on the farmstead of the perfectly named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who has lost his livestock and more to the seeping landfill next door.
Bilott’s outfit specializes in defending chemical companies, but he reluctantly takes Tennant’s case, with ambivalent support from his silver-fox boss (Tim Robbins). He soon makes enemies of his former friends, who attend social events with white ties and black servants. And it takes a crash course in chemistry to unearth exactly what unbreakable string of carbon molecules DuPont came up with, with its human costs now literally buried in the ground and (gulp) in our bodies. Attacks roll off the Teflon-coated behemoth, and most of the film’s two hours–plus are devoted to lawyerly strategies to at least chink that armour.
Especially now that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a front for the worst polluters, this material—taken from the New York Times Magazine and other reportage—is inherently compelling. It’s not automatically cinematic, however, and that makes the director’s anti-aesthetic particularly frustrating. The grungy ’70s look of his own Safe tackled enviro-paranoia at just the right distance. But Haynes is a hired gun here, working from a connect-the-dots script that dutifully keeps tacking back to Bilott’s dull suburban home life, primarily to give some busy-work to a wasted Anne Hathaway, sporting a wig that’s halfway between sassy and Stepford.
In the end, the movie’s grim look, with its parade of gray silhouettes and murky shadows, feels more like a cop-out than a choice. When Bilott decides to go through boxes of DuPont evidence in a windowless storage room, he moves a desk lamp to the floor to sort papers, without flipping on an overhead light. That seems silly. But maybe he’s just being green.