April 2024

Dark Waters (2019)

DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes

CAST: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman


Dark Waters is a cinematic cousin to the likes of The Post and Spotlight; like those films, it tells the true story of a real-life legal battle pitting underdogs—in those two films, investigative journalists, here a corporate lawyer turned whistleblower and victims’ advocate—against Goliath “villains” (in The Post, it was the Nixon administration, in Spotlight it was the Boston Roman Catholic Church, here it’s chemical mega-corporation DuPont). To that end, it’s a stately, well-crafted, albeit unexceptional drama that both provides some viewers with an eye-opening education (albeit one some viewers might have preferred to have gone without) and stokes a little justifiable outrage about a corrupt self-protecting system.

Apart from a brief (and rather superfluous) prologue in 1975, the film spans events from 1998 to 2015. Up-and-coming corporate lawyer Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) works in Cincinnati, Ohio representing chemical companies, far from small-town Parkersburg, West Virginia he left behind. A reluctant homecoming is spurred when Bilott receives a visitor one day: surly Parkersburg farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who uses an acquaintanceship with Bilott’s grandmother to barge into his office one day unloading a pile of videotapes and other evidence on a bewildered Bilott and demanding his help. Initially, Bilott doesn’t really want much to do with this, but after being goaded into reviewing Tennant’s meticulously compiled evidence, he becomes convinced something is very wrong. Tennant is losing cows at an alarming rate, and others are born with defects and an assortment of unexplained health problems, and the more Bilott looks into things, the more he realizes that the issues extend to the local human population, and that a local landfill owned by chemical giant DuPont is to blame. Ultimately, Bilott takes DuPont to court, but this David vs. Goliath story will span almost two decades.

Dark Waters is a serious-minded, non-flashy docudrama for a niche audience; it’ll be dismissed as boring by anyone looking for something more action-oriented, and nothing that can be considered very “exciting” happens (although the movie is often tense and unsettling and tries to pump up the “suspense” in a couple moments, such as a scene where Bilott seems to be shadowed by a mysterious figure in a parking garage and is paranoid that there might be a bomb in his car), but along with cinematic cousins like The Post and Spotlight, it serves its function of being both educational and illuminating for those previously unaware of the subject matter (though the saying “ignorance is bliss” definitely applies here; some viewers might feel a little queasy about their next glass of water or the next time they use their pots and pans) and serving up a David vs. Goliath court battle. To those ends, it’s solid and engaging if unexceptional. Todd Haynes keeps things subdued and restrained and lets the facts speak for themselves, and doesn’t shy away from some disturbing details; we see collected evidence of cows with huge tumors and ulcers, blackened teeth (reflected in the black-stained smile of a local townsgirl), and deformed crooked limbs, as well as townspeople coming down with cancer and ominous sores and coughs, along with a stream filled with rocks bleached white by chemicals. Meanwhile, there’s the standard sorts of subplots we often see in these kinds of movies, where the hero’s dogged obsession with the case leads to tension with his wife (Anne Hathaway) and family, and he butts heads with some of his own law firm colleagues when he rocks the corporate boat.

Our hero Rob Bilott is not a flashy or flamboyant character; Mark Ruffalo’s performance is low-key and subdued, playing Bilott with a stoic, dogged determination that occasionally gives way to a flash of moral outrage. This isn’t the first time Ruffalo has played this kind of character; he was previously Oscar-nominated for a not dissimilar role in 2015’s Spotlight (where he played an investigative journalist who helped expose the Boston Roman Catholic Church sex scandal), although his performance there was a little more fiery and arguably just a notch stronger. Ruffalo is fine as Bilott, but he lacks any standout “big moment” like his impassioned outburst in Spotlight that was tailor-made for an Oscar nomination clip. Aside from Ruffalo, no one else gets too much to do. Anne Hathaway wrings a couple strong moments out of the largely thankless role of the supportive/worried wife. Ditto for Tim Robbins as Bilott’s cautious boss who has mixed feelings about what Bilott is getting himself (and his law firm by extension) into. Other supporting roles include ubiquitous character actor Bill Camp as the surly Wilbur Tennant, Mare Winningham as another of Bilott’s clients, and Victor Garber as DuPont CEO Phil Donnelly. If there’s a marginal weak link, it’s the never particularly impressive Bill Pullman, whose hammy performance seems as overplayed as his West Virginia accent, but his role (as a local lawyer who works with Bilott) consists of only a few scenes and isn’t significant enough to be a major distraction.

Dark Waters doesn’t really bring anything new to this kind of movie—I felt that, on the whole, Spotlight was a more compelling experience—but it fulfills its aims of setting up a true story David vs. Goliath courtroom drama while also stoking the flames of righteous indignation. It’s not a great movie, but in the laudable pursuits of educating viewers and celebrating a real-life underdog who struck a righteous blow against the system, it accomplishes what it sets out to do.