Dark Waters is a whistle-blower drama in the same vein as Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, and Michael Clayton. Like them, it's based on a true story. Also like them, it knows how to push the audience's paranoia button. Director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan don't do anything groundbreaking from a filmmaking or script perspective. They simply tell the story, and that's enough to get the point across in a sufficiently effective fashion.
Mark Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, an environmental attorney used to defending chemical companies in court. He's approached by a West Virginia farmer, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who claims his cattle are dying because of whatever DuPont is dumping into the landfill near his house. As a courtesy to Tennant, who knows his grandmother, Billott offers to take legal action to get DuPont to turn over some information about what's in that landfill.
At this point, the attorney intends to step back from the case. It turns out, though, that the entire situation revolves around a chemical compound used in Teflon – the stuff that's in everything from cooking ware to curling irons to home carpeting. And there's evidence it may have gotten into the water system, causing a disproportionate amount of cancer and birth defects among the locals. With the occasionally reluctant support of his boss (Tim Robbins), Billott soon finds himself playing David to DuPont's Goliath.
Half of Dark Waters is routine, if still compelling. We've seen other movies where lawyers file motions, sort through boxes of documents, and eventually stumble across that one “a-ha!” piece of evidence that cracks things wide open. Those moments are all present here, along with the requisite scenes in which the lawyer's wife (played by Anne Hathaway in this case) frets over how consumed he has become by the case. Good performances keep the story afloat, in spite of general familiarity.
The other half is where the film really shines. After filing a class action lawsuit, Bilott watches as DuPont uses its vast fortunes to grind the legal process to a virtual halt. He's got the evidence. He can prove everything. They don't want to deal with the potential repercussions, so they use every manipulation possible to drag things out for years. This, more than anything, is what Dark Waters is really about. Our system is set up so that the more money you have, the more you can get away with, since the proverbial “little guy” can't afford to keep up with you. The movie depicts that fact with chilling accuracy.
Ruffalo is an actor who always projects a sense of intelligence onscreen, so he makes Bilott's fight credible, along with the character's feeling of hopelessness as DuPont flexes its muscles. The idea of a cynical lawyer opening his eyes and taking on the Big Bad Corporation is nothing new, yet Ruffalo ensures we emotionally invest in Bilott's journey.
Haynes guarantees we're left a little rattled through simple, almost subliminal shots of water and people drinking it. That underscores the idea that companies have been contaminating us for decades, in various forms, and we've all ingested who-knows-what at some point in our lives. Dark Waters might just inspire you to throw out your non-stick pans and sip nervously on that next glass of water.
out of four
Dark Waters is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some disturbing images, and strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.