Dark Waters

Where the Ruffalo roam
Verdict: 
7/10 - Dark Waters is underwhelming as a thriller, but devastating as a true story of corporate malpractice.
Release Date: 
Friday, February 28, 2020
Written by: 

Mark Ruffalo stars as environmental lawyer Robert Bilott, who uncovers a terrible secret about the U.S. chemicals industry.

7

Although most of us have a dim view of big corporations - from oil companies warming the planet to social media giants watching our every move - we generally don't believe they would knowingly poison us.

Yet, that is exactly what environmental lawyer Robert Bilott found U.S. chemical company DuPont was doing when he began looking into strange goings-on at a farm near where his grandmother lived in the late 1990s.

Bilott's story is the subject of Todd Haynes' new movie Dark Waters, which stars Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer who uncovers a horrific and barely fathomable truth.

Dark Waters certainly lives up to its title. Shot in permanently depressed blue and grey hues that take the aesthetics of past political thrillers and dial them up to 11, it's fair to say this is not a feel-good story.

What's remarkable about Bilott is that he started on the side of the chemical companies.

A fastidious man perfectly suited to success as a corporate lawyer for the Taft law firm, his life changed forever when he was confronted by West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who sought out Bilott to take on his case against DuPont, who he claimed had dumped dangerous chemicals in the watercourse around his farm.

Bilott reluctantly agreed to take on the case as a favour, and because he thought it would be an easy damages win, but soon discovered something far bleaker and worrying was afoot - leading to what eventually became a 20-year-long fight (one which is still actually ongoing).

 

If the spectacular bleakness of the facts of Dark Waters is the inspiration and strength of the film - it is clearly one Ruffalo produced and starred in because he thought the story was too important not to be widely known - it is also its weakness.

Paradoxically, due to the scale and facelessness of DuPont's malfeasance, it lacks the urgency of The Report, another drama that premiered at Sundance 2019.

Unlike that film's hero, Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones, there's almost a sense in which Bilott is resigned to the thanklessness of his task and its scale meaning triumph is impossible - but that the fight must continue regardless.

Even victories that break records for penalties and compensation for class action lawsuits fail to satisfy, and Ruffalo's world weary demeanour and unconvincing tension with Anne Hathaway as Bilott's wife Sarah over his passion project is rather emblematic of a film which struggles to turn the mundanities present in even the most incredible true stories into dramatic sparks.

As a result, Dark Waters rather fails as a legal thriller. It's interesting, certainly, and diverting to follow, but seems unlikely to reach the wider audience its star and director hoped for.

Where it succeeds, however, is as a document and diatribe against a corporate killer - and as that it is absolutely a must-watch.

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