Dark Waters is a movie the filmmakers clearly believe in, a true story tailor made for message-movie retelling. Universal clearly saw it as an awards-season contender of pedigree, hence its theatrical November release, but it was also quickly shoved aside by better, more interesting films. Nothing in Dark Waters eschews formula, but it’s a pretty good version of the classic “lawyer fights the power and mostly loses, but is a hero anyway” movie.
It chronicles the court cases pursued by Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) on behalf of the citizens of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who were poisoned by the criminal negligence of DuPont Chemical. Director Todd Haynes works faithfully within the framework of legal and conspiracy thrillers to give the audience reams of factual information so that when Ruffalo screams, “The system is rigged! They say it protects us, but it doesn’t!,” everyone is on the same page. DuPont buried and dumped unsafe levels of toxic chemicals, byproducts of Teflon manufacturing, into the water supply near Parkersburg. The company knew, via testing, that these chemicals caused numerous cancers and abnormalities, but did it anyway to save a buck. Now you know, too.
There’s nothing especially entertaining or new to Dark Waters, but it’s educational and grounded by Ruffalo. Anne Hathaway also stars as Bilott’s wife, Sarah, although the scenes between them fall somewhat flat. She’s relegated to the standard “concerned wife and cheerleader” archetype (despite a line pointedly insisting she isn’t ), and this type of role is not Hathaway’s strong suit.
In November, Sam reviewed Dark Waters. in it, he summarizes as such: “When the film forces you to absorb complex science and legalese … it soars. It’s bracing to see a mature, dialogue-driven drama that commands your complete attention.” That it does. Ruffalo is an outspoken political activist in real life, and it’s great to see him work to enliven this material. There are any number of similar stories now, and always have been in America, where corporations can do more or less whatever they want. When will we see a similar film about the poisoning of Flint, Michigan? Big names, big budget, big studio push? I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet, but maybe the fact that Michigan’s victims were predominantly black and the fuckup was due to bought-out Republican politicians makes it a different situation behind the scenes.
If there is any strong critique to Dark Waters, it’s that the necessities of capturing 15 to 20 years of legal pursuit in a two-hour timeframe requires Haynes to condense much of the backend of Bilott’s battles into a very small space toward the film’s end. Sure, the most dramatic parts of the story are the discovery of the conspiracy and the initial fight to have it seen outside the inner circle. But the victories feel lessened when conveyed solely with white text on a dark background right before the credits roll.
Special features include a number of short documentaries about the making of the film.