DARK WATERS (2019) starring Mark Ruffalo as an attorney who goes after the Dupont chemical company for knowingly dumping poisonous chemicals into the water supply of a West Virginia town is one somber movie.
It’s grim because one, it’s based on a true story, and two, Dupont’s negligence as described in this movie goes well beyond contaminating the water supply of one small town. With their Teflon marketing for cookware, they knowingly put the entire nation at risk and beyond. Indeed, Dupont’s callousness reached a global scale.
Enjoy your popcorn!
So, yes, DARK WATERS deals with some very heavy subject matter, and it does it in a way that is unassuming and direct. Its style reminded me a lot of another somber movie which starred Mark Ruffalo, SPOTLIGHT (2015), which chronicled the pedophile crisis in the Catholic Church in Boston. Like SPOTLIGHT, DARK WATERS simply allows its story to unfold. It doesn’t get overdramatic or fill its screen time with forced bells and whistles. Its story is damaging enough on its own.
In the mid 1990s attorney Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) has just made partner at his firm which specializes in representing large companies like Dupont. So, when he is approached by a farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) asking him to represent him in a case against Dupont, Robert tells him he needs to find another attorney. But Tennant tells Robert he’s a friend of his grandmother’s, and so, out of respect for his grandmother, he pays Tennant a visit.
Robert sees firsthand the damage done at Tennant’s farm. Nearly all his cattle have died, and Tennant wants Dupont investigated because he believes they have been spilling chemicals into his land via a neighboring landfill. Robert agrees to take the case, and as he explains it to his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) he believes it will just be a matter of opening Dupont’s eyes to a mistake made by some of their local workers. They’ll fix the mistake, and that will be the end of that.
What Robert uncovers is that Dupont knew exactly what they were doing, and that their disregard for the dangers uncovered by their own research went back decades. Of course, once he discovers this, he is met by fierce resistance both by Dupont and his own firm who see it as bad business to take on a giant like Dupont. But Robert is undeterred, and he continues to wage his battle against the chemical giant, even as it takes its toll on his family and his own health.
I really liked DARK WATERS, even though watching it was certainly not a pleasurable experience. Quite the contrary, it was as disturbing a cinematic experience as I’ve had in a while. The ramifications of its story reach deep into the heart of its audience as it sheds light on an issue that is still with us today. In short, the “forever chemicals” carelessly dumped into the environment by Dupont are already in all of our bloodstreams. Forever chemicals are those which the human body cannot break down. The damage is already done.
Director Todd Haynes, as I said, does not get in the way of this story, nor does he try to sensationalize it. Even though Dupont is viewed as an “evil company,” the focus throughout remains on main character Robert Bilott and the toll the case takes on him. The emphasis is on the human element, how these chemicals harmed the folks in that West Virginia town, and beyond.
Haynes heightens the direness of the story by filming it in dreary drab grays. The countryside is depicted under cloudy skies. The sun is hardly seen. There’s a cloud hanging over West Virginia, and its name is Dupont.
Likewise, the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, based on a magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, is simple and to the point. And while it doesn’t go out of its way to overemphasize things, it does enjoy some rousing moments, like Tim Robbins’ speech as Tom Terp, where he’s listening to his fellow attorneys at the firm cautioning against taking on Dupont, and then he explodes in anger, saying what Robert has uncovered is a travesty, and that the folks at Dupont need to be called out for their recklessness, that American business is better than that, and that how everyone at that table should be chomping at the bit to take on Dupont.
Mark Ruffalo is excellent at Robert Bilott. He delivers a powerful performance and he does it in a way which goes against what you might expect. He doesn’t deliver fiery emotional speeches or become more energized the deeper he gets into his investigation. No, it’s the opposite. The investigation nearly kills him. Instead of rousing speeches, he speaks less and less, as if the horrors of his findings are overwhelming him into silence. He grows more and more unhealthy, and Ruffalo does a remarkable job capturing the descent that Robert takes, all the while never backing down..
Anne Hathaway spends the first half of the movie in the thankless role of the stay-at-home housewife, but she turns it on during the film’s second half. Whereas Robert is beaten down, Hathway’s Sarah Bilott steps up for her husband, and she enjoys one of the movie’s better moments as she gives Tim Robbins’ Tom Terp a piece of her mind.
Tim Robbins is very good as Tom Terp, the attorney who sincerely wants to support Robert, and says as much several times during the movie, but as the senior partner at the firm, he has to look out for its best interests, which puts him at odds with Robert the longer this case drags on, and it does drag on. In fact, the end of the movie states that Robert Bilott continues his fight even today.
Bill Pullman shows up for a couple of brief scenes as the lively attorney Harry Dietzler, and he enjoys some fine moments helping Robert take on Dupont’s attorneys. And Victor Garber is sufficiently icy as Dupont head Phil Donnelly.
But my favorite performance in the film belongs to Bill Camp. His portrayal of farmer Wilbur Tennant is as authentic as you can get. Plus the character is integral to the story. He’s the man who first contacted Robert, and he’s also the man who speaks the truth throughout. It takes Robert a while to catch on to this, but when he does, he becomes all the more dedicated to helping Camp and his family, who like his animals, have also been diagnosed with cancer.
DARK WATERS is not a fun movie, and it’s not supposed to be. It tells a story that should be viewed and considered by as many people as possible. And it serves as a reminder of what happens when large companies are allowed to operate unchecked, and more importantly, what can happen when even one dedicated person decides enough is enough and it’s time to fight back.