For almost 20 years, American lawyer Robert Bilott fought to expose the wrongdoings of one of the world’s biggest chemical companies, DuPont. Based on the New York Times Magazine article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters tells the story of Robert’s (Mark Ruffalo) fight for justice, which started when Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, enlisted his help after almost 200 of his cows died from mysterious health issues.
Wilbur is convinced that his town’s water supply is being poisoned with chemicals, and that DuPont is to blame. As Robert digs deeper into the company’s history, he finds evidence to suggest that Wilbur’s conspiracy theory is more fact than fiction, and that the issue goes beyond the borders of his small, rural hometown.
The film juggles a lot of story as it flits between Robert’s investigation, his family life, and the lives of those affected in Parkersburg. By trying to balance all three, the film loses focus and often feels disjointed as it jumps from one narrative to another. Seeing the impact that DuPont’s actions have had on unwitting citizens is the most compelling aspect of the whole story, but it’s not given as much attention as it deserves. Instead, it shares the spotlight with a look into how the investigation impacted Robert’s relationship with his wife (Anne Hathaway) and children, as well as how it affected his health. Given the magnitude of the investigation, the family drama elements seem unnecessary to the story in comparison. That’s not to say they’re unimportant, but they make a film that already has a lot of material to work with even more loaded.
Covering a time period of 17 years, from 1998 to 2015, the film is also incredibly long. The 126-minute run-time might emphasise Robert’s ennui and frustration as the investigation relentlessly swallows up his life, but from a viewer’s perspective, it’s needlessly drawn out. Lengthy boardroom meetings dominate the plot, and any tension that is built is lost among the swathes of jargon-filled dialogue and the overall lack of momentum. There are a few tense moments scattered throughout, but not enough for the film to move into thriller territory.
What the film has in abundance, however, is great performances. Mark Ruffalo is extraordinary as Robert, whose transformation from a mild-mannered corporate defence attorney into a passionate environmentalist is inspiring. Ruffalo is well-known for his dedication to environmental activism, so it’s not surprising to see him throw everything he has into the role. Equally committed is Bill Camp as Wilbur, whose wonderfully thick West Virginian accent is hard to forget. Anne Hathaway gives a moving performance as Robert’s wife Sarah but, unsurprisingly, she’s there for emotional support and not much else. Films that expose corporation cover-ups will always be necessary. With A-list actors and acclaimed filmmakers attached, they can attract and educate large audiences about issues they may know nothing about. Dark Waters teaches vital lessons about the dangers that large companies can pose not just to the environment, but also to our health. It might not be the most accessible or entertaining exposé, but it’s crucial one.
Dark Waters is out in UK cinemas now
by Holly Weaver
Holly Weaver (she/her) is currently studying French and Spanish at the University of Leeds, and has spent her year abroad studying film in Montréal. She is enraptured by pre-1960s cinema and some of her favourite films include Singin’ in the Rain, City Lights and The Crime of Monsieur Lange. You can find her tweeting and letterboxd’ing at @drivermiller.