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Mon04062020

Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

The real-life horrors the DuPont company inflicted upon Parkersburg, W.Va., get a strong cinematic treatment from director Todd Haynes with Dark Waters, an earnest legal drama that skips lengthy courtroom sequences in favor of in-depth looks at those affected—on all sides of the case.

Mark Ruffalo headlines the movie as Rob Bilott, a corporate attorney visited at his posh office one day by Wilbur (Bill Camp), a friend of his family. Wilbur, a lifelong farmer, shows up grumbling like a crazy person, screaming about dead cows and chemicals. Rob dismisses this agricultural Quint from Jaws, gets back to his meeting, and goes about his mostly comfortable day.

However, the encounter with Wilbur eats at Rob; he decides to investigate further and eventually winds up on Wilbur’s farm—where close to 200 cows have perished due to ailments like enlarged organs and tumors.

Wilbur thinks this is happening because of something in the water in the stream. Wilbur is right.

DuPont has been dumping toxic chemicals near Wilbur’s farm for years—ever since the company brought Teflon to the American public decades earlier—and Bilott is very familiar with the company. He’s even friends with Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber), a company lawyer. They have cordial discussions about Wilbur and his cows at first, but those discussions escalate into a lawsuit, followed by larger class-action suits, as the people of Parkersburg become aware of the chemical plague that has been infecting their drinking water.

The film works well, in part because it avoids typical courtroom-drama stereotypes. Ruffalo’s Bilott is a well-meaning but flawed guy, and he’s a little slow on the uptake at first. He’s also a bundle of nerves prone to medical emergencies, because he can’t take the pressure. Tom, his boss (played by a strong Tim Robbins), is alternately supportive and demanding—not the typical top-dog-lawyer monster who often resides in these movies. These characters actually have depth.

Ruffalo, who has been making big money as Bruce Banner/Hulk in the Marvel movies, was a solid actor before he went green—and he remains one. He has a WTF? face in this film that says it all, as he encounters one atrocity after another.

Even though much of what really happened in Parkersburg is now part of the public record, Haynes manages to make the movie somewhat of a mystery, with slow reveals as Bilott digs deeper and gets closer to the truth. There are moments that seem innocuous and standard—but are revealed later on to be pivotal.

I’ve known a few cow farmers in my time, and Camp gets all the elements right—but this farmer has the added unfortunate element of raging disgust with a corporation that is slowly killing him and his family. Wilbur’s encounter with a family cow losing its mind is heartbreaking. Anne Hathaway adds extra dramatic heft as Rob’s wife, Sarah, who is trying to keep normalcy in family as her husband goes off on a crusade that seems to be never-ending. She has some of the film’s more intense moments as she plays equal parts supportive and get-your-shit-together enforcer.

Dark Waters will make you think about a lot of things we take for granted—like non-stick surfaces in our cookware, and swimming holes … and where does the water come from? This case was a blight on DuPont, a big company with a lot of problems, another one of them captured memorably in 2014’s Foxcatcher (which also starred Ruffalo).

One of the more shocking true details this film reveals is that most humans have traces of chemicals—like the those that polluted Parkersburg’s waters—in their blood. That’s an eye-opener, as is the movie as a whole. Dark Waters is a stark reminder that there are money-making entities out there that don’t give a rat’s ass about your well-being. That truth is scarier than anything you’ll find in a horror movie.

Dark Waters is now playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Life of Crime, a film based on the 1978 Elmore Leonard novel The Switch, has finally made it to the screen, nearly 30 years after producers first tried to make The Switch into a film. Unfortunately, the movie is rather drab.

The film features a kidnapping plot that has a rich wife, Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), being taken hostage; however, her philandering husband, Frank (Tim Robbins), doesn’t really care. A plan to make the movie in the ’80s was scrapped when Ruthless People, a movie starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler with a similar premise, went into production.

In the interim, Quentin Tarantino adapted Leonard’s Rum Punch into Jackie Brown in ’97. Jackie Brown featured characters who also appear in Life of Crime: Kidnappers Ordell Robbie (Mos Def) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) were played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro, respectively, in Jackie Brown. Isla Fisher also appears as Frank’s mistress, Melanie, a character portrayed by Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown.

I share this trivia about Life of Crime, because it is far more interesting than anything that happens in the actual movie.

Unlike some of the more successful Elmore Leonard film adaptations, like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight (1998), Life of Crime lacks cleverness, laughs and even a discernible pulse. It’s a mostly flat affair, boasting a decent cast trying their best with a bland script.

Writer-director Daniel Schechter opts to make Life of Crime a period piece set in the 1970s. He gives his movie a washed-out look to go along with the humorless dialogue, and the pacing of this film is at times frustratingly slow and sloppy. It’s only 98 minutes long, but it feels like more like three hours long.

Nothing happens in this movie that feels new or inspired. The kidnappers take Mickey; they find out a big ransom is unlikely because the husband is a jerk; and that’s it. There’s a side plot involving a guy named Marshall (Will Forte) trying to have an affair with Mickey that is underdeveloped, and Mark Boone Junior shows up as a kidnapping accomplice who is a neo-Nazi. His character is probably supposed to add some kind of dark comic flavor, but he’s just ugly and unpleasant.

Aniston, one of the more misused actresses in Hollywood, is given the thankless task of acting worried and tired throughout the movie. None of her comedic chops are called upon; one gets a true sense that she was left out in the wilderness by her director.

Of all the performers, Mos Def seems the most comfortable in his role. He stars in the few moments of the movie that pop and crackle with Leonard’s style. Hawkes, a reliable actor, unfortunately joins Aniston in seeming mostly lost. Fisher, like Mos Def, manages to make her scenes somewhat worth watching. At one point, the characters played by Mos Def and Fisher team up; that made me wish the whole film was just about them.

The film includes the requisite unflattering period clothes and ’70s music on the soundtrack. The 1970s could provide a cool musical backdrop, but Schechter and friends chose such duds as “Let Your Love Flow” and “Don’t Pull Your Love.” If any soundtrack could have used a nice, upbeat ’70s track by The Kinks or The Who, it would have been this one.

Life of Crime seems to entirely miss the point and spirit of its source material. Or, perhaps it’s just getting unjustly compared to work by the likes of Tarantino and Barry Sonnenfeld. Either way, I was pretty bored.

Life of Crime is available via video on demand and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It is also playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing