Dark Waters was directed by Todd Haynes (Carol, Wonderstruck, I’m Not There) from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, which is based on the New York Times article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich. It stars Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney at the Taft, Stettinius, & Hollister law firm, who has just recently been made partner, only to have a disgruntled farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) interrupt one of his first meetings to ask for his help; Tennant believes that the Dry Run Landfill, owned by the Dupont chemical company, is leaking dangerous chemicals into his creek’s water, from which his cows drink, forcing them to go mad and die at an alarmingly high rate – he’s lost 190 of them already. After some hesitancy, as well as a visit back to his hometown in Parkersburg, West Virginia to see his grandmother and check out what’s going on at Tennant’s farm, Bilott decides to take on Wilbur Tennant’s case, suing DuPont in the process, and soon begins to uncover a decades-long saga of corruption, malpractice, chemical mismanagement (including but not limited to the known poisoning of 70,000 local residents over the course of 40 years), and willful negligence on the part of the chemical giant. With the power that DuPont possesses all over the world, including holding some sway over the U.S. government, it’s up to Robert and his partners at Taft to stand up to the corporation, reveal the truth about their actions to the world, and hopefully, put a stop to it once and for all. This movie also stars Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, William Jackson Harper, Mare Winningham, Victor Garber, Louisa Krause, and Bill Pullman.
It’s been a little while since we’ve seen Todd Haynes take on a project this “mainstream,” generally speaking, as his last larger outing came with 2015’s Carol, a lesbian romance drama set in the 1950’s that also ended up being one of the best films of that year (though it was noticeably passed up for a Best Picture nomination, despite its bevy of other nods). In the same year, Participant (the studio behind this film and another recent Picture nominee, The Post) released its eventual Best Picture winning journalism drama, Spotlight, which also took home the Oscar for original screenplay. Given the subject matter of this entry into Participant’s catalog of films wherein regular working people take on large American institutions practically brimming with corruption and negligence, as well as the director on hire, and the ever-increasing star power and talent of Mark Ruffalo, this would have been a slam dunk for yet another Best Picture nomination in a far less crowded year. But while the presence of heavy competition at the 92nd Academy Awards may keep Dark Waters from cracking most (if not all) awards races, that competition still should not deter audiences from going to see it whenever possible.
Dark Waters very much plays out like a procedural drama in the same way that Spotlight did, and while it doesn’t quite succeed as much as Tom McCarthy’s Boston Globe crusade against the Catholic church at what it aims to accomplish, it more than gets the job done for those interested in its subject matter. This film may not interest everyone right off the bat, but it should, for any variety of reasons, not the least of which is that while the information contained in the film has been available to the public for nearly four years now, this is really the first time since 2016 that it’s been a central matter in the public eye, and it’s a story that everyone should be familiar with, as necessary a watch as Amazon’s The Report, if not more so. There’s so much in this film even I didn’t know about, and the educational value of it matches its entertainment value step-for-step, even out-pacing the entertainment in certain segments.
The trailer for the film does a solid job of explaining to the audience what kind of movie they’ll be getting into, but the film itself goes even further, and the more Mark Ruffalo’s character uncovers throughout the course of the film, the more horrified one becomes at his discoveries. I myself became so viscerally disgusted by the corruption Haynes and company were unveiling that I wanted to burn every NASCAR shirt I ever owned that had a DuPont logo on it (I was a big Jeff Gordon fan as a kid), and much of the third act brought me to tears just thinking about the implications of what was being revealed on screen. That’s the kind of power a great story can have in the hands of a talented director and willing stars, and though the film doesn’t quite land as hard as it otherwise could have on the whole, in 2019, with the threats of corporate corruption, near-irreversible climate change, and willful negligence on part of both the U.S. government and the companies to which it is tied, Dark Waters is no less vital than Spotlight was when it released.
There are certainly other factors that contribute to the quality of this film, but the primary ingredient that makes the whole story work is the steady and assured direction of Todd Haynes. The man is a master behind the camera, and while the mostly dulled-out greys, khakis, and blues of the film’s color palette don’t offer a lot to work with given the time period and locations in which the film is set, everything is so well-framed and artfully constructed for a film like this, once can’t help but admire Haynes as a true talent of the craft. He truly exerts a control over the flow of information and the way the camera moves to reveal or conceal that information in such a way that it feels as though he’s creating the story as it happens on screen, and for a director like Haynes to be able to do something like that with a movie like this, which doesn’t necessarily need that sort of artful approach in order to work, is a feat worthy of praise, even if less film-savvy audiences may not take as much notice of it as those who know to look for it.
But, as aforementioned, Todd Haynes isn’t the only card Participant has to play, and to tell a story worthy of the sort of impact Dark Waters has, you need great performers that are willing to pour whatever passion they have into telling it – enter Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo has been one of cinema’s most reliably gifted actors for decades now, as well as a very outspoken advocate of social justice and sensible climate change legislation; the studio could not have gotten a bigger slam dunk on their star than him, and he delivers every bit in this film as he always has. Robert Bilott is not, per se, a very explosive or animated character, so I wouldn’t expect to see Ruffalo in the Best Actor category with the likes of Adam Driver, De Niro, or Joaquin Phoenix, but his work as the quietly tempered lawyer who becomes more and more willing to fight DuPont the more he discovers about their shady practices is no less impressive than any of the other ‘dark horse” candidates in 2019, and every second he’s on screen, you can feel his vulnerability, his bravery, his uncertainty, his willingness to put himself on the front line in this conflict. He may be more famous for playing the Hulk in the MCU, but Mark Ruffalo was and remains a hell of an actor in his own right, and this movie is yet another great display of his immense talent.
The supporting cast are all really solid in the film too, and it’s nice to see Tim Robbins getting to play supporting to Ruffalo, as I don’t recall seeing him in something this good for quite some time (maybe he’s been doing more tv lately, but I’m not familiar with whatever projects he might have worked on). His character is actually quite far from the villain the trailer might have made him out to be, and his stern but fair approach to supporting Ruffalo’s character allows him to show that he’s still got just as much talent in him as he did in the 90’s. There’s a scene in the film where all the partners at Taft are sitting around a conference room table deciding what their next move against DuPont is going to be, and Robbins gets a fantastic monologue to show off the range he still has. It’s a really great scene with some really great writing (including some for The Good Place star William Jackson Harper), and Robbins is really great in it. Anne Hathaway and Bill Camp, too, turn in some really solid supporting work as Sarah Bilott and Wilbur Tennant, respectively, though they don’t get to do quite as much as I might have liked to see, particularly in Hathaway’s case. Still, if you can, getting talent this loaded onto a project like this hardly hurts, and Haynes seems to know exactly what he’s doing with these actors in every part.
Unfortunately, though, it’s not just competition that will keep Dark Waters largely shut out of the Oscar race, as the film does fall prey to a few pitfalls that often plague stories like this. For one thing, despite the film’s two-hour, six minute runtime (a pretty standard length for most dramas), it still feels as though it runs a bit too long, and that largely comes from the second act not quite moving at the pace that it needs to in order to give the story the sense of urgency it would need. Whereas Spotlight, the film to which this is most similar, spans just a few years, and so is able to carry that sense of urgency through even its calmest moments, Dark Waters spans decades, from 1975 to 2016, and that long stretch of time can be felt as one watches the events of the narrative unfold. While it’s understandable that getting this sort of story to fit with the timeline of what actually occurred is important for the sake of accuracy, and though I don’t know exactly how it could have been sped up (and I’m sure the audience is meant to feel the same frustration Mark Ruffalo’s character does), it nonetheless hurts the film in the long run not to have a somewhat faster turn-around on certain events that hold up the narrative from progressing in the escalating fashion that a story like this needs.
There are also a few strange editing choices which feel like they come too soon or too late, as well as some that just feel strange in execution, even as their placement isn’t necessarily as bothersome. The main one I had a problem with, though, was the closing edit, as the movie cuts to black in a pretty abrupt fashion, even though it’s run over a bit too long already. Even if movies run a bit too long, the ending should still flow as the rest of the film does, and the way the film cuts to black almost the second the final scene begins makes it feel as if they intended to include that scene but didn’t know how to bookend it with the rest of the film, thus cutting it so soon. It’s a strange editing choice in a movie that already has a few of them, and it was pretty jarring for the final text to just appear on the screen when the film had been slowly letting its third act build up to that scene.
Still, despite some buffing around the edges and a few noticeable pitfalls, Todd Haynes’ saga of criminal negligence and chemical corruption in regards to the DuPont chemical company is a worthwhile film that remains as vital to watch as it is sure to be left out of the Oscar race this year. All the performances are great, especially that of Mark Ruffalo, the story could not be more timely or educationally valuable, and Haynes’ direction ensures that this film will one day be counted among the best entries in Participant’s ever-growing catalogue of man vs. institution narratives. Definitely give this one a shot.
I’m giving “Dark Waters” an 8.7/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.