A corporate defense attorney takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution.
The overarching feeling I came away from ‘Dark Waters’ with was how is this story not better known? One of the largest chemical companies in the world knowingly poisoned the water supply of a town in the United States, yet that company still exists and this story has barely registered with many people (including myself), let alone had a lasting legacy. ‘Dark Waters’ is a story of corporate corruption on a large scale and it’s not the first time we’ve seen this story, particularly after the financial crisis in 2008 (I’ll take this opportunity to point you towards ‘Margin Call’, ’99 Homes’ and ‘The Big Short’, my three favourite films on that subject), however there’s something that feels worse about this, given the perpetrators of these actions knew their behaviour would lead to people’s deaths.
Slight rant aside, I’ll move on to the film itself. ‘Dark Waters’ is a legal thriller from Todd Haynes about Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer who discovers links between unexplained deaths in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the chemical corporation DuPont, who are a large employer in the area. Bilott’s career to date has generally involved defending corporations, so he’s initially reluctant to get involved and only speaks to the farmer (Bill Camp) who raises his concerns with him as a favour to his gran who lives locally, however it doesn’t take long before he realises the scale of what’s been going on. Despite numerous attempts by DuPont and his own colleagues to throw him off the case, Bilott continues on, uncovering more and more damaging information that shows that not only did DuPont pollute the local town’s water supply, they knew about it in advance and made a conscious choice not to stop.
The film shares many similarities with ‘Spotlight’ (not least due to Mark Ruffalo playing the lead), in that both films focus on large organisations who believe themselves to be so powerful they can do what they want, and in both cases many people involved don’t want to get involved. I do think ‘Dark Waters’ lacks a bit of the fire that made ‘Spotlight’ so compelling but it’s an important story well told and Mark Ruffalo’s performance is more restrained and powerful in this instance. It’s directed by Todd Haynes and for a director known for his individual flourishes, he plays the material entirely straight, allowing the power of the story to drive the film and not the other way around.
‘Dark Waters’ is a powerful adult drama about corporate malfeasance and the lengths large corporations will go too in order to avoid taking blame (and a hit to their profits). Given its late February release date in the UK, there’s a danger this film will go under the radar, much like the story it’s telling. If you get the chance, take the time to go and see it.
Directed By: Todd Haynes
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Victor Garber, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Bill Pullman, Louisa Krause and William Jackson Harper