White guy in a suit looking serious

Attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) sounds the alarm on a dangerous chemical in Dark Waters.

Queen City lawyer battles deadly chemical foe

DuPont ads used to boast that the company provided “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry.” Dark Waters is a fact-based chronicle of one man’s efforts to prove how tragically inaccurate the slogan was.

As the film opens, Robert Bilott (a low-key Mark Ruffalo) is just settling into his new position as a partner in a Cincinnati law firm when an old acquaintance drops by. West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) says his cattle have been dying off in mysterious ways, and he suspects the cause is a nearby landfill operated by DuPont.

Tennant wants Bilott to intervene, but Bilott insists his background is in defending corporations, not suing them. However, he soon pays the farmer a visit that convinces him something is seriously wrong. Getting to the bottom of what that something is, and who should be held responsible, turns out to be a frustrating task that will dominate his life for years to come.

Director Todd Haynes has taken on a challenge much like the one Scott Z. Burns recently tackled with another reality-based film, The Report: How do you turn a seemingly endless battle with bureaucracy into engrossing cinema? There are some who say Burns failed with his story of a lonely fight to uncover CIA-sponsored torture, but I was transfixed for the simple reason that I wanted to see how it would turn out.

Haynes also succeeds—but only for the first hour or so.

Drama ensues when Bilott takes on Tennant’s case despite the qualms of his boss (Tim Robbins), who worries about antagonizing a potential corporate client. Soon Bilott finds himself wading through a roomful of DuPont documents as he attempts to identify a mysterious chemical that isn’t even regulated by the federal government. His quest becomes more urgent after he learns the chemical may be endangering not just livestock but humans, including Tennant himself.

Eventually, Bilott’s struggle becomes a soul-draining ordeal that threatens his marriage with wife Sarah (an underused Anne Hathaway). It also threatens viewers’ patience, especially after every question has been answered except for one: How long DuPont will be able to tie things up in court?

Haynes and screenwriter Mario Correa occasionally try to shake things up by, for example, sending Bilott into a spooky parking garage. But, really, the second half of the movie is largely a waiting game that occasionally descends into preachiness.

A postscript reveals that the real-life Bilott remained committed to his cause despite all the frustrations. Whether viewers will be equally patient may depend on whether they share his passion for environmental justice.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Family drama undergoes personality shift

Waveshas been summarized as the story of a black family dealing with tragedy. But anyone expecting thoughtful domestic drama is in for a surprise.

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shultz, Waves actually comes across as two separate films connected by family but divided by style.

The hyperkinetic first half centers on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school wrestler driven by a desire to please his demanding father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). Ronald tells Tyler that in order to succeed, he must work 10 times as hard as everyone else (i.e., white people). Tyler follows his advice—to a fault.

When an injury threatens his chances of landing a wrestling scholarship, he endangers his health in order to stay in the ring. When his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) announces she’s pregnant, he tries to bully her into a resolution she doesn’t want. In short, he makes bad and thoughtless choices, and he keeps on making them until they lead to unimaginable tragedy.

Well, not completely unimaginable. Tyler is routinely shown acting in such a reckless and irrational way that disaster always seems imminent. Despite Harrison’s invested portrayal, Tyler’s saga amounts to an exhausting display of self-destruction.

But then the film makes a complete 180 by focusing on Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), and by doing so in a far quieter mode. Devastated by a loss that has rocked her family, she keeps to herself until she’s approached by a shy but smitten classmate, Luke (Lucas Hedges). Together, they begin a journey that forces them to take a fresh look at past traumas.

Their path to enlightenment is not a completely original one, but it’s sensitively portrayed by Russell and Hedges. Besides, it adds a welcome dash of hope to a tale previously mired in dread and despair.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Dark Waters(PG-13) and Waves (rated R) open Dec. 5 at local theaters.

More reviews by Richard Ades can be found at

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) gets a dye job from girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) in Waves.

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