Dark Waters is based on a true story about an attorney’s investigation into industrial giant DuPont’s role in sickening residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia with a toxic chemical. Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, who in the mid 90s was a successful defense attorney who helped defend corporations against environmental lawsuits. After a family friend alerts Bilott to the suspicious deaths of 190 cows on his farm, the attorney reluctantly begins investigating DuPont and soon finds himself fighting the legal maze that he, and others like him, have crafted to help companies dodge responsibility.
Before I continue, I have to point out that going into this film, I had high expectations, but also realized that I was going to be comparing this film to Spotlight a lot during its runtime. Based on the trailers, Ruffalo’s character seemed in many ways similar to the one he played in Spotlight, and while the environmental subject matter is different from the sex abuse scandal at the center of the aforementioned Best Picture winner, it seemed obvious that the films would be similar in structure. They are. However, that is no reason to write Dark Waters off. It tells an important, compelling story in its own right and features some fine performances from Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Anne Hathaway and Bill Pullman.
One big difference between Dark Waters and Spotlight is in terms of characterization. The latter film did not delve much into the personal lives of any of its characters. It mostly centered on the professional world of the journalists at the Boston Globe and their reactions to the story they uncovered. It worked perfectly for that film and if I was forced to choose, I would still say Spotlight is a better film. It is more tightly constructed and the dialogue crackles. That said, Ruffalo gets to give an impressive and far more complex performance in Dark Waters. We learn about his family, we see the strain this case puts on his career and feel the guilt that begins to overcome him the deeper he gets into the investigation.
Working from a script by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, director Todd Haynes unearths more trouble and suffering in suburban American, and I disagree with the argument that this a departure for him. If you look at his filmography, this is a perfect thematic companion stories of secrets hiding underneath ways of life often idealized or thought of as peaceful.
The juxtaposition of reality with fantasy is perfectly captured by a scene where Bilott drives through Parkersburg with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” playing on the car stereo. As the song plays, seemingly every street he cruises down reveals another landmark with DuPont’s logo slapped on it. In contrast to John Denver’s lyrics, we see a gross industrial landscape rather than the picturesque imagery pop culture often fosters about West Virginia. Soon after, we learn the extent to which DuPont has not only invaded a community, but the bodies of countless of its citizens. As someone who once resided in Clinton, Iowa, this scene struck me because I thought of how much another industrial giant, Archer Daniels Midland, had pretty much taken over that community. What was in many ways a tranquil river town had swapped much of its identity and soul to a company in exchange for jobs. The river is still pretty, but the smells you must endure while admiring it will test your gag reflex. The message of Dark Waters is that the jobs offered by companies like DuPont and ADM come with steep prices for the communities they inhabit.
I also found the film to be very much in line with the style of some of Haynes’ other works. The color palette is quite similar to the one he and cinematographer Edward Lachman used in Carol in 2015. The pacing is slow, but in a deliberate way that delivers some hefty emotional payoffs throughout. I also have to note that Haynes really seems to enjoy older American cars. I’ve noticed how he and Lachman have featured them in previous films like Carol and Far from Heaven, but didn’t think much about it because of the eras they depicted. In this case though, I’m curious to find out if Bilott is actually a collector of classic American cars or if that’s something that was added because it is one of Haynes’ stamps as an auteur. There’s also a nifty bit of symbolism going on here. The gas-guzzling Detroit built beasts we see our protagonist drive for much of the film points to his denial, up to a certain point in his life at least, of the impact industry and consumerism has on the environment. Perhaps it’s also a statement that no matter how much we change, we can always do better.
This is a film that will scare you and make you angry. If you’re not too familiar with the story, the following might count as a spoiler. As you watch you will discover that, no matter where in the U.S. or the world you live, you are almost certainly one of DuPont’s victims. Dark Waters doesn’t sugar coat the necessary environmental battles that need to be fought and how difficult they will be. At best, the ending of the film provides cautious optimism, but that’s probably its greatest strength. That it conveys such a horrifying and at times depressing story while succeeding as, at times, rousing entertainment (there’s even a few well-timed jokes), is impressive. I know there are, for once, a ton of well-made dramas playing in theaters right now for adult audiences, but this is not one to miss.
Dark Waters is a legal thriller that follows Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a lawyer at a large firm that defends chemical companies. Bilott begins to unravel a story, against his better judgement, about one of the most powerful companies in the world. This really is a story of small town America and the struggle against corporate greed and negligence.
This is a surprisingly dark story. It all begins when a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who lives in Bilott’s hometown comes to see him about what is happening on his land. His cows are dying. He has a ton of proof. No one will listen. There is a sense of desperation that takes over the first half of this story. This film does a really good job of portraying a small town and the mentality of its people. As time goes on, the people of this town begin to feel the economic impact of fighting DuPont. You can sense their hesitation in continuing this fight and the fear of what could be lost. These are people that are barely hanging on as is and a change like losing a major employer could crumble the entire region. As I was watching this film, I couldn’t help but see my own hometown and their struggles in this story.
In general, this was a very well-constructed film. Todd Haynes does a really good job directing. I do see this film is a bit of a diversion from what he usually does but it is well done. There were several scenes where he made choices that really allowed you to feel the anxiety, desperation, and sense of responsibility that Bilott feels in helping these people. This is also one of the better scripts of the year in my opinion. This story had the potential to include a lot of jargon, but through the dialogue they were able to really boil it down to the simplest terms and make it accessible to the average person.
While this is a story that focuses on a legal case, it also had a surprising theme of family throughout. We get a glimpse into Bilott’s family life which brings us one of the better performances of the film. Anne Hathaway plays Sarah Bilott, Rob’s wife. I think it was a great choice to include her in this narrative and actually give her some backstory and complexity. It easily could have just been about Rob. Sarah grounds his character when he needs it the most. Her role really brings a sense of humanity to the entire process.
My biggest criticism of this film is that it was a bit long. It easily could have been fifteen minutes shorter. At the end, there are multiple times where you think it is going to end, but it just keeps going. It is also very conventional in the structure of the narrative. It is quite predictable, but well enough told that the convention really doesn’t ruin it.
Even though I watched this film in a theater full of teenagers (I really don’t think that was the target audience) who laughed obnoxiously at every one liner, I really enjoyed it. I don’t see it really getting many nominations this season, but it is definitely a film you will learn something from. Honestly, I have decided to start a life in the woods after seeing what this company has done.