DARK WATERS (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Produced by: Mark Ruffalo, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler
Screenplay: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan
Based on “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman, William Jackson Harper, Mare Winningham etc.
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Every now and then one watches a film you kind of wish you hadn’t. Not because it is bad, quite the contrary with director’s Todd Haynes’ legal drama, Dark Waters (2019). No, you wish you hadn’t watched it because it unveils a tragic series of events relating to environmental, corporate, chemical, legal and human corruption. I prefer to possess hope that human beings can be trusted to do the right thing. However, based on this story that is definitely not the case. Moreover, given the information revealed about huge corporation, DuPont, and their environmental procedures, it’s a damning indictment against corporate greed and community murder.
A two-hour film is certainly not long enough to do justice to a story which has taken decades to unfold and cost the lives of many people and animals, while irreparably damaging the environment in the process. However, it effectively bullet points the crimes of the DuPont conglomeration in a riveting fashion. At the heart of it is corporate lawyer, Robert Bilott, here portrayed by the always excellent, Mark Ruffalo. Beginning circa 1998, Bilott, is approached by farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) whose livestock have died or been culled due to tumours and other cancerous illnesses. Bilott who is usually employed to act as a lawyer FOR the big companies, investigates further. Subsequently he uncovers something rotten in the state of West Virginia.
Mark Ruffalo as Bilott inhabits an intelligent, caring and dogged man, driven by his desire to see justice for Wilbur Tennant and the people of Parkersburg. It’s often remarked Ruffalo would make a great Columbo; and like that famous fictional TV detective, Bilott never ever gives up. This is even in the face of years and years of environmental tests, litigation, DuPont’s dirty legal tactics and hundreds of court appearances. Anne Hathaway as his wife Sarah Bilott is also good, although her role is slightly underwritten. Bill Camp impresses though in his turn as the exasperated farmer whose life and livestock has been destroyed by synthetic chemical waste dumped into adjacent land.
Like A Class Action (1991), A Civil Action (1998) and Erin Brockovich (2000), this film rarely transcends the genre conventions of the legal drama. There are moments where it leans toward the conspiracy thriller elements of say, The Insider (1999). Bilott’s family life almost crumbles and he becomes paranoid that their lives are in danger from chemicals and DuPont. Overall though, the film’s strength is in the conveyance of the legal proceedings and agony of a community impacted by corporate negligence. Moreover, I was seriously in awe at the diligence Bilott showed in wading through the reams of legal paperwork.
Ultimately, this is a consistently solid narrative with Bilott’s resolute determination providing a sturdy spine throughout. It was slightly surprising to see the film was directed by American arthouse auteur, Todd Haynes. Nonetheless, it is not about making poetic cinema, but rather presenting a powerful environmental message that highlights the murderous avarice of DuPont. Haynes and his cinematographer inject some creative technique in the lighting style. Murky, shadowed and opaque, the cinematography match the dark recesses of the system Bilott fights against. Lastly, Ruffalo, as he did in Foxcatcher (2014) wrestles with the DuPont family, only this time with a wholly different conclusion.