Based on the New York Times article The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare by Nathaniel Rich, Dark Waters is a real-life legal thriller about the poisoning of a small industrialised rural town by one of America’s largest chemical companies, DuPont. Best known for spearheading the New Queer Cinema movement of the late 1980s and early-1990s, Dark Waters is not the type of film one would expect director Todd Haynes to be involved with. However, he has at his disposal an excellent script by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (which they adapted from the NYT article), and an excellent performance from Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight) as plucky underdog defence lawyer Rob Bilott.
Bilott is a typical everyman hero. Born and raised in rural West Virginia, he works as a corporate defence lawyer in Cincinnati defending chemical companies. When farmer Wilbur Tenant (Bill Camp) shows up at his office on the recommendation of Bilott’s grandmother, with videotape evidence of the horrifying poisoning of his cows due to DuPont’s nearby plant dumping toxic waste in the water, Bilott essentially switches sides. After a little moral persuasion from his grandmother, Bilott decides to sue DuPont using his inside knowledge against them. But the poisoning of Tenant’s cows is just the tip of the iceberg…
What ensues is a familiar universal story of one man taking on a behemoth corporation but, against all the odds, succeeding and bringing about change through an individual act of heroism. Bilott’s decision to help his grandmother’s neighbour takes him down a rabbit hole he couldn’t have imagined; his colleagues turn against him and his home life with wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway) is disrupted. He develops a nervous tremor in his hand and is regularly tailed by ominous cars and men in suits. At the centre of the scandal is one particular chemical, PFOA, which is used to manufacture Teflon and non-stick pans. DuPont studied the effects of the chemical for years, discovering it causes cancer and birth defects, but they decided to bury the evidence.
The film is straightforward and accessible, with instances of disposition to ensure audiences keep up. Alongside the central real-life story is a theme of class disruption, with Bilott’s rural West Virginia origins the subject of some cruel banter from his colleagues, which is nicely visualised by the denim and plaid outfits of Wilbur Tenant and his buddy as they march into Bilott’s spotless suit-and-tie office with a tattered cardboard box of evidence. His humble background only adds to this real-life character’s likeability.
Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of Dark Waters is its authenticity; so much so that it casts some actual residents of Parkersburg in the film—most notably William “Bucky” Baily, who was born with a single nostril and facial deformity due to his mother’s chemical poisoning while working at DuPont’s chemical plant. Additionally, it doesn’t shy away from the legal ins and outs as it follows this excruciating case from start to finish. Yet the story is still told through an artistic lens, with murky greys and blues casting a shadow over the whole film, practically poisoning the screen.
Although Ruffalo is excellent in the central role, with echoes of his award-winning performance in the ‘Best Picture’-winning Spotlight, none of the other performances—other than Camp as the gruff Wilbur Tenant—are particularly inspiring. Hathaway, for example, seems to be wasted on a role that could have had a lot more going for it. There’s a story thread about her giving up a career as a lawyer to look after the kids which could’ve been developed or explored further, but then again it may have distracted from the central plot and aim of the film, which, ultimately, is an all-out assault on DuPont for their crimes against humanity.
2019 seems to have been a big year for real-life whistleblower legal thrillers, with The Report (2019) also taking aim at the CIA’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation’, and Official Secrets (2019) revealing that the US spied on members of the UN voting on its resolution to invade Iraq. But Dark Waters takes us away from the corridors of Washington D.C, Whitehall, the CIA, and GCHQ, and instead shows us the effect this particular scandal has had on real-life, everyday people, with one standout take-home message: “we protect us.”
DVD Special Features:
The DVD was unavailable for review due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bonus material on the disc is outlined below.
- The Cost of Being a Hero. This piece examines real-life Rob Bilott’s sacrifices to take down a powerful corporation and how a single individual can impact an entire community. Cast and filmmakers discuss the importance of telling this story and empowering whistle-blowers and the lengths Ruffalo went to inaccurately depict this real-life hero.
- Uncovering Dark Waters. Get an inside look into the storytelling behind the gritty, real-life story of Dark Waters from Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, the filmmakers and crew, with a great insight into the director’s dedication to the truth whilst making the film accessible and dramatic for audiences.
- The Real People. Meet the real people from Parkersburg who were impacted first-hand by the contaminated water as they share their experiences being on set and taking part in the film.
Cast & Crew
director: Todd Haynes.
writers: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare’ by Nathaniel Rich).
starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham & Bill Pullman.