Todd Haynes and Mark Ruffalo Tackle Environmentalism in 'Dry Run'

Neither the 'Carol' director or the 'Avengers' actor are strangers to activism, and their timely team-up feels especially welcome.

Todd Haynes Wonderstruck
Amazon Studios

Todd Haynes is about to make an arresting return to the realm of cinematic discomfort. After the feel-good delights of Wonderstruck and the searing romantic overtures of Carol, Haynes has boarded a directorial venture that seems entirely impossible to languish in.

According to Variety, Haynes will direct Dry Run, a Participant Media project that currently has Mark Ruffalo attached as producer. There are whispers that Ruffalo could also negotiate a deal to star in the movie, although nothing concrete has yet been determined on this front. Mario Correa (Electoral Dysfunction) is currently in the process of rewriting the film’s script, working from a first draft by Matthew Carnahan (House of Lies).

Dry Run is based on a harrowing true story, centering on Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” The film will follow the efforts of corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott to bring an environmental lawsuit against chemical company DuPont. Despite the seemingly paradoxical situation of a corporate lawyer going against the interests of a company aligned with his firm, Bilott was driven by conscience (in Rich’s feature, Bilott states it was “the right thing to do”) to uncover the truth about a contaminated water supply that first came to his attention after one man’s cattle farm was invariably poisoned.

Bilott eventually discovered a massive history of chemical pollution involving perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Used to manufacture high-performance plastics that are then made into numerous modern everyday devices, improperly disposed sludge laced with the toxic compound risked the health and safety of thousands. A class-action suit was filed on behalf of 70,000 people against DuPont, through which a court-appointed science panel determined a probable link between multiple health problems — including various cancers, thyroid disease, and ulcerative colitis — and PFOA.

When Rich’s piece was first published in January 2016, its present-day contextual relevance compared to the ongoing Flint water crisis couldn’t have been overstated. Nevertheless, problems with drinking water in the United States still persist, and PFOA and its overarching group of man-made chemicals known as PFAS continue to proliferate headlines. Hence, the political significance of Dry Run rings especially true.

And I can’t think of a better actor to produce and hopefully star in Dry Run than Ruffalo. His activism – environmental and otherwise – has often been clearly stated, particularly on his social media accounts (that is, when he was still regularly using them). Apart from his own personal conviction to shine a light on a story like Bilott’s, Ruffalo’s innate actorly sensibilities match the quiet fire that Dry Run’s protagonist would need, too.

More than once throughout Rich’s story, the real Bilott is characterized as “understated” but undeniably driven towards some kind of greater purpose. When studying at the New College of Florida, a liberal arts school, Bilott found a taste for questioning the establishment. In his own words, “Don’t take anything at face value. Don’t care what other people say. I liked that philosophy.” His favorite law school course was environmental law due to its real-world applications.

Take a look at Ruffalo’s best roles for a comparable knack for social commentary. Beyond just portraying Bruce Banner in the MCU, and many enchanting love interests in erstwhile romantic comedies of his early days, films like Zodiac and Spotlight are great ensemble pieces that shed light on a common affliction.

Zodiac provides Ruffalo the opportunity to portray stark conviction in the face of a seemingly impossible task of catching an enigmatic killer, allowing audiences to watch the situation inevitably take a toll on his character. Spotlight – arguably one of the best films about journalism to come out in recent years – is full of empathy and heroism, even when its protagonists are met with the frustrations of bureaucratic gatekeeping. And Ruffalo, like always, acts the hell out of it all.

Part of me is way too excited about the mere prospect of Ruffalo starring in Dry Run, so I should probably write about something that’s at least confirmed. With regard to Haynes’ attachment, the film definitely has a stylistic advantage from the get-go, regardless of who its lead actor turns out to be.

Haynes’ mastery of his signature cinematic craft involves a striking ability to depict nostalgia to a point of utmost saturation. Yet, within these reminiscent frameworks, a subversive narrative is waiting to burst through. His directorial efforts – Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, I’m Not Here, Carol, and most recently Wonderstruck – share similarities not necessarily in subject matter but in the ways that they use style to facilitate the voices of lesser-seen communities.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Carol is full of romance. So much so that by the film’s end, viewers could perhaps relish in the fact that love finds a way against all odds through the throes of violent discrimination. Still, there’s a significant amount of unease that rests in Carol’s time period. After the eponymous protagonist and her lover share that final longing look, what happens next? What would they — can they — do to maintain the happiness that they deserve?

The fact that Carol can simultaneously serve as absolution and disruption is precisely what makes Haynes’ work so powerful. When we look at his eeriest film — ironically titled Safe — the sense of unknowability is absolutely suffocating. Julianne Moore’s Carol White slowly but surely degenerates, supposedly due to sensitivities to multiple chemicals. But truthfully, the audience isn’t actually privy to exactly what’s going on with her. There is a distinct lack of warmth in Safe that is laced throughout the cinematography. The coldness that Moore’s Carol experiences from health professionals as well as people who supposedly love her generates maximum anxiety and fear in both protagonist and viewer.

Haynes could totally bring such warranted antsy pressure to Dry Run. Meanwhile, his penchant for capturing emotional depth (which is further evidenced in Far From Heaven and the miniseries Mildred Pierce) is also necessary in order to personify the desperate compassion rooted in Dry Run‘s premise.

At the risk of getting my hopes up too soon, I will state that Ruffalo’s sensitive, nuanced acting would genuinely fit perfectly into one of Haynes’ curated and emotionally-conscious worlds. Nonetheless, their joint efforts in a producorial capacity are already worth celebrating, and a film like Dry Run couldn’t be timelier.

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