Based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine article, this sobering and sophisticated political thriller about a corporate defence attorney doesn’t appear a natural fit for New Queer Cinema pioneer Todd Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven, Safe). However, on closer inspection, its interest in the rot thriving undetected in American homes is in keeping with many of the director’s other films.
In Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1998, lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is brought a case about contaminated water by a farmer friend of his grandmother’s. “I defend chemical companies,” he tells Wilbur Tennant (a grizzled Bill Camp). Tennant presents him with VHS tapes of sickly cows with blackened teeth, along with a swollen gallbladder wrapped in tin foil, and so the pair begin a wearying, years-long uphill battle against the self-regulated DuPont chemicals company. The film fizzes with righteous fury right the way through to its bitter, unhappy ending. Haynes emphasises the story’s toxicity with a poisoned palette of jaundiced yellows and sickly hospital greens.
Ruffalo optioned the rights to Nathaniel Rich’s original article and has an executive producer credit on the film; clearly, he has a stake in the material. The actor is excellent as reluctant hero Bilott, muting his natural charisma to create a character who is both taciturn and generous, determined but socially ill at ease. Anne Hathaway is less particular in her portrayal of his wife, Sarah.