It is highly likely you have the poisonous chemical PFOA, used in the production of Teflon, in your system.

99% of people in the US have it.

This is a fact shown in Dark Waters, the film based on the true story of former corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) who goes on a decades-long crusade against chemical giant DuPont, outlining and exposing the companies knowledge of many people being poisoned by their products.

Dark Waters depicts the struggle that comes with a class action lawsuit in long, exhausting detail. Bilott managed to launch the lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of the major victims of PFOA and PFOS after nearly 20 years of fighting, an important aspect when he could have settled the case in a matter of weeks or months.

Director Todd Haynes shows the timeline eking forward, years pass in a matter of seconds, and before too long, you realise there is no happy ending, no victorious final speech that becomes a rallying cry for the people to rise against corporate immorality. This tireless journey of one normal lawyer trying to defend a few innocent people all takes place with him not realising the toxic trap about to open beneath his feet.

Unfortunately, Dark Waters is held back from affecting one on a deeper level other than disgust at the inherent corruption of capitalist America, given that the narrative is presented in such a dry manner. Haynes and writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan are dealing with evil actions that led to physical deformities and painful deaths of many, but the movie only seems to care about Bilott’s personal and professional trials and tribulations, which holds the devastating stories of victims at a distance. With the core focus being on the complex legal battles rather than the directly human side of DuPont’s schemes, it makes the mood of the film feel cold, clinical, and merely functional rather than profoundly enlightening or moving.

On paper, Dark Waters should feel like Spotlight, another movie that focused on a decades-long crime against humanity that was unheard about, and covered-up by the perpetrators, one that also featured a confident performance by Mark Ruffalo, but which also managed to key in directly to the devastating human side of its subject matter. Both are presented in rather standard formats in terms of writing and cinematography, nothing too flashy or over-produced, but the filmmakers behind Spotlight offered up their story in a way that made it approachable to any audience, whereas Dark Waters gets a little too caught up in the minutia of the class action lawsuit, with plenty of scenes of lawyers discussing and arguing about what to do, often forgetting the lives of the victims.

Mark Ruffalo is doing fine enough work playing a normal man with normal emotional reactions and a rather standard life, and given his real-life advocacy, it’s understandable what drew him to this role. Bilott’s change of heart from defending chemical companies to trying to take down the largest of them all is talked about by other characters and we are left to guess that it’s because his discovery comes from within his hometown, but we never really feel that emotional impact that feels right there in front of us. Ruffalo is well-cast in a role that requires him to, in one scene, confidently and assuredly explain what DuPont has done and how widespread their poisonous chemical is to his doubtful wife (a thoroughly underused and, by proxy, miscast Anne Hathaway), and he maintains an engaging presence as this rather stoic and humble man, but the storytelling doesn’t do this performance much justice.

Cinematographer Edward Lachman shoots Dark Waters well-enough to give some intricate colours in standard scenes, thus making them feel more engaging than what’s being said by any of the characters. Haynes is, as we’ve seen before, not a bad director. He knows how to tell this legal thriller effectively and efficiently, but by nature of what this story, it just needed more than an efficient hand behind-the-scenes to bring its immediacy and impact to life.

It was rather frustrating for Dark Waters to merely feel like a theatrical presentation of a Wikipedia article, rather than finding and exploring the specifically human angle that is still at the heart of this devastating case. Perhaps a documentary about Bilott’s crusade against DuPont, with Bilott, his lawyer colleagues, and victims all giving interviews that tell their own stories, could be more effective in educating the public about PFOA and the poisoning of the human race. This is also the inherent problem with many a true story about long-running legal battles: they aren’t always the most entertaining or engaging stories out there. There are no heroes, and so we are left at the end of Dark Waters feeling cynically reserved to the idea that there is nothing anyone can do about it. Goodnight everybody. Drive home safe.

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Bill Pullman

Writers: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, (based on The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare by Nathaniel Rich)