Updated: Feb 9, 2020
The based-on-a-true-story drama Dark Waters has been made with purpose and anger. It is about a man who discovered a crime being perpetrated against the American people and the lengths he went to in order to ensure justice was served. It is powerfully written and acted in its biggest moments, though the filmmakers seem to have been more interested in making sure this story was told than in making it consistently entertaining. The narrative drags on without a lot of forward momentum; however, in all fairness, that is exactly what happens to their protagonist. Part of the way, it is emotional and effective. The rest of the way, it is informative, if dry. I learned a lot and got to see some talented actors give several strong speeches. It never quite hooked me the way I would have preferred. Still, it is a good movie, with something valuable to say.
As it begins, Rob Bilott just made partner at his law firm. Then, a neighbor of his grandmother’s in West Virginia comes to see him, claiming his farm has been poisoned by the local DuPont plant. Reluctantly, Rob investigates and what he finds makes him determined to hold DuPont accountable for their horrifying actions.
Dark Waters (based on the New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich) stars Mark Ruffalo, who also produced. It is clear he believes very passionately in what his movie has to say. Despite the fact Rob has previously defended chemical companies, this is not about him becoming disillusioned with his work. There are the requisite scenes of him being chastised by his wife (a woefully underused Anne Hathaway) for not being there for her and their children, but I think that is mainly to show us how fully he threw himself into this case. This is about a terrible truth coming to light. The focus is always on what DuPont was doing and how that impacted the citizens of Parkersburg, West Virginia. Ruffalo is a great actor who brings a righteous outrage to the role. He keeps things looking at the subject matter, instead of his performance. It was probably the correct choice, even if I would have liked to see more acting battles between him and the rest of the cast.
In addition to Ruffalo and Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber and Bill Pullman all appear in significant roles. Robbins has less to do than it initially seems as Rob’s boss, but contributes a couple of nice moments down the stretch. Garber is DuPont’s legal counsel, suitable as a foil for Rob. Pullman, as a West Virginia lawyer who helps Rob in court, brings some much-needed energy in the second half. He adds a few mild laughs which is appreciated in such serious material.
However, you can tell what they were really concentrating on was what they were saying, not how they said it. Dark Waters (123 minutes, not including the end credits) was directed by Todd Haynes, who tends to work in melodrama. In movies such as Carol or Wonderstruck, he uses visual motifs to bring color into his character’s lives, both literally and figuratively. The world Rob finds himself in is very dark and drab. There is no life to it. That is fitting because the argument brought to him is that DuPont is killing the farmer’s land. I understand the decision to have it look like this and to pace it slowly (DuPont drags its feet at every stage), yet it does not make the movie more entertaining. There are more flat-out enjoyable options playing in theaters right now, though nothing more passionate. Its message carries it past its duller elements, making for a worthwhile experience.
3½ out of 5
Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott
Anne Hathaway as Sarah Bilott
Tim Robbins as Tom Terp
Victor Garber as Phil Donnelly
Bill Pullman as Harry Dietzler
Bill Camp as Wilbur Tennant
Directed by Todd Haynes
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa