DARK WATERS

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Todd Haynes

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Anne Hathaway, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause.

Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters (2019)

Based on a true story, this is a David versus Goliath like story of an attorney who sought justice against the powerful DuPont chemical company which had for years knowingly poisoned the people of Parkersburg in West Virginia by dumping toxic chemicals and carcinogenic material into the town’s water supply. Dark Waters has much in common with 2000’s Erin Brockovich (for which Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her performance as a crusading lawyer) and 1998’s legal drama A Civil Action, which starred John Travolta as a lawyer taking on a case involving a chemical company dumping toxic waste into a local water supply. This engaging legal drama is based on an article entitled The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare, written by journalist Nathaniel Rich and published in the New York Times magazine in 2016.

Environmental lawyer Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) works for a Cincinnati law firm that specialises in defending chemical companies. He is approached by two West Virginia farmers who enlist his help in suing a local chemical plant for allegedly killing their livestock. They believe that whatever DuPont has been dumping in a local landfill has spilled over into a waterway, thus poisoning their herds. Initially reluctant to take on the case, Bilott changes his mind after visiting his former hometown and checking out the farmer’s land. He is shocked by what he sees.

He files a complaint against DuPont, thus beginning an extended lawsuit that will consume several years of his life. The dogged Bilott uncovers systemic corporate greed, corruption, environmental damage and negligence that reaches right into the boardroom of the company, which also happens to be the town’s largest employer, and exposes a long history of environmental pollution and coverups. At the crux of the case is a synthetic chemical known as PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), which was a key compound for Teflon, and which has been linked to birth defects and six diseases including several types of cancer.

But Bilott’s relentless pursuit for justice affects his relationship with his supportive but long-suffering wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) and their three sons. It also affects his health and his reputation within the legal community.

The film has been directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol, etc); this is somewhat uncharted territory for the filmmaker who usually specialises in queer themed dramas exploring sexuality and identity. But the film shares a few similarities with his 1995 film Safe, which featured Julianne Moore as a woman who believed she was being poisoned by something in the atmosphere. Here Haynes manages to make the paper chase, civil procedures and complex legal wrangling tense and compulsively exciting. The film has been evocatively shot by veteran cinematographer Edward Lachman, a regular collaborator, who captures some bleak imagery of the wintry landscapes.

Dark Waters is something of a passion project for Ruffalo, who is also credited as one of the producers, and he brings plenty of moral outrage to the role. He is well cast as Bilott, playing the dogged and principled but quietly spoken lawyer with a world weary and downcast expression, bad haircut and slumped posture, and he also captures his internal struggle as he wrestles with his conscience and confronts the emotional and physical toll the law suit has taken on him. This measured and nuanced performance is a far cry from his superhero heroics in the Marvel/Avengers cinematic universe.

Hathaway is given little to do in the first half of the film, reduced to playing the typical concerned housewife, but she comes into her own in the latter stages as she voices her concerns about the cost of her husband’s unhealthy obsession to seek justice. Tim Robbins, something of an activist himself, is fine as Bilott’s initially sceptical but ultimately supportive boss Tom Terp. Victor Garber is his usual unctuous self as DuPont’s CEO Phil Donnelly. Bill Camp is excellent as Will Tennant, the local farmer turned whistle blower who hires Bilott. Bill Pullman brings a touch of folksy charm to his small but important role as personal injury lawyer Harry Dietzler.

Dark Waters itself has been written by Mario Correa, who comes from a documentary background, and Matthew Michael Carnahan (the recent 21 Bridges, etc), and it follows many of the tropes of those other classic whistle blower movies like Silkwood, The Insider, etc. This powerful and provocative tale is enough to make you emerge from the cinema feeling angry at the type of corporate malfeasance exposed here.

★★★☆

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