The spirit of social activist dramas such as Norma Rae, Matewan, Silkwood and The Insider is alive and well in Dark Waters, a compelling account of a drawn-out legal case in which a tenacious whistleblowing lawyer spent years pursuing DuPont for secretly poisoning customers through the use of toxic chemicals and products, including Teflon. In a notable change of pace, director Todd Haynes temporarily abandons his more often arty and stylized approach in favor of a naturalistic realism that perfectly suits the material, while Mark Ruffalo admirably tackles the leading role of an attorney who won’t give up despite many good reasons to do so. The politically minded will be especially responsive to this constantly absorbing Focus release.

As written by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, the tale spans 17 years, beginning in 1998 when a struggling West Virginia farmer tries to impress upon Cincinnati corporate environmental defense attorney Rob Bilott (Ruffalo) how toxic waste used around his farm has been killing their cows and ruining their fields. The irony is that Rob, who’s just made partner, normally represents chemical companies — notably DuPont, which is by far the biggest employer in the area of Parkersburg.

This is not an easy tale to dramatize for many reasons: It’s protracted, looking to outlive some of its participants; the hero’s research involves massive paperwork; the settings are unavoidably and unphotogenically drab; some of the characters, including the Bilott family, don’t do much except work and attend church; and the prospects for positive change for anyone on view would appear extremely limited to say the least. It’s a sad but honest view of the meager amount many people can expect from life.

Still, potent drama can flourish from any ground in any climate, and so it is with this tale, which is born of Rob’s disgust over the sorry fate of farmer Wilbur Tennant (a memorably pissed-off Bill Camp), who’s buried nearly 200 cows on his farm and whose own health is beginning to deteriorate. “You tell me nothing’s wrong here,” he growls. If Bilott had known what he was getting into, he probably wouldn’t have let the situation lure him in, but this one man whose life has been ruined sufficiently inspires Bilott to the extent that it nearly wrecks his own health and relationship with his wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway).

Bilott does have a loyal supporter in his supervising partner at the law firm, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins). It takes a while, but Bilott’s investigation finally leads him to a nearly 50-year-old drug called PFOA, of which DuPont had dumped thousands of tons onto local land. When a discovery request results in what looks like hundreds of boxes of documents being delivered to Bilott’s office, you know any resolution will be a long time in coming. And so it is.

There is a poignant sadness to the presentation of the limited lives being lived in this part of the world, from the farmers wiped out by the corporate lies to those who may be financially better off but whose social spheres seem to more closely resemble those of the 1950s rather than the eve of the next century. Fortunately, this does not come off at all as the condescension of a New York hipster toward the boonies but, rather, a sadly sympathetic look at citizens with very few options, those who in many cases may work for just one employer in their lives and, like Bilott’s family, are dedicated church-goers.

Unlike many other disruptors, Bilott is not a born attack dog, but like many in the law he can’t abide injustice and endeavors to see wrongs righted. At one point he gives his wife, who keeps popping out baby boys, a little history lesson in PFOA, which dates back to World War II days when early tests showed the drug prone to making rats develop cancer. But at a time when Teflon products were generating $1 billion per year, DuPont was regulating itself, with no oversight by the government.

As time wears on, Bilott’s own health seriously deteriorates and it seems unlikely that anything will come of the man’s years of diligence. It takes until 2015, after every barrier and roadblock DuPont can come up with has been knocked away, for the issue to be finally resolved.

Successfully restraining himself throughout from getting fancy or experimental, Haynes has intently devoted himself to the story and his actors, with strong, unshowy work that ideally serves the tale being told. Cinematographer Ed Lachman, who shot Far From Heaven, I’m Not There, Mildred Pierce and Carol for Haynes in very different and more elaborate styles, here evokes an honest bleakness using a look that would seem to return to his mid-1970s career roots. 

Ruffalo anchors the film with a performance that stresses dedication — both as the character and as an actor — as the linchpin of a man’s character. Robbins carries with him valuable stature as Bilott’s office superior, while Hathaway supplies Sarah with a 1950s-style supportive good Catholic wife-and-mother profile that occasionally shows cracks. 

Production company: Willi Hill/Killer Content
Distributor: Focus Features
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause, Kevin Crowley, Bruce Cromer, Denise Dal Vera, Richard Hagerman
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenwriters: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on the
New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich
Producers: Mark Ruffalo, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King, Robert Kessel, Michael Sledd
Director of photography: Edward Lachman
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Costume designer: Christopher Peterson
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting: Laura Rosenthal

Rated PG-13, 126 minutes