From its opening scene, it is very clear that Dark Waters isn’t your typical whistle-blower drama. Young teenagers sneak around late at night to go skinny dipping in a forebodingly eerie lake—it’s a scene where the ambiance and score provoke a feeling of horror straight out of Jaws. It’s ominous, as if at any moment a shark will come out of nowhere and devour the swimmers. Instead, a boat from the nearby chemical plant appears to urge them out of the water while spraying a mysterious substance onto the grim-looking waves.
There is no shark lurking in rural West Virginia; the horrific truth of the matter is much more subtle and devious. Dark Waters tells the true story of the ongoing environmental lawsuit against the DuPont chemical company, a result of the negligent and knowing poisoning of a West Virginia community over a handful of decades. Starring Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a corporate defense attorney who switches teams to fight for the little guy, and beautifully directed by Todd Haynes (Carol, Far From Heaven), Dark Waters is a legal drama that is somehow both by-the-numbers and unconventional.
The lilting, light-hearted opening notes of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” purposefully and masterfully contrast a bleak landscape and harsh grey tone that lords over the entire film. “Almost Heaven, West Virginia”, Denver croons, though it’s quite obvious that there is something seriously wrong in this small town that sits in the shadow of a powerful chemical plant. Heightened by Haynes’s creative direction, no message is overly concealed in this film. From the moment Bilott sets foot in West Virginia, it isn’t too hard to figure out that something is off.
The film is slow-paced and purposeful just like the slow poisoning of the water supply and the resident’s bodies over time; it’s a thriller without the big thrills and a far cry in terms of structure compared to something like Haynes’ non-linear biopic I’m Not There. The pacing is even, the story linear. Just when you think something big is about to happen, a major breakthrough in the case or even a car bomb going off, the screen goes black and picks up again two years later without much actual progress having been made. It is both realistic and frustrating, which is intentional but does render the film rather tedious at times.
The slow passage of time with no real light at the end of the tunnel is meant to emphasize that the fight is long and eventually to reveal that it still isn’t over. We don’t get to see big “aha!” moments or major turning points in the investigation that define so many other films like this, just the slow but steady rifling through mountains and mountains of paperwork to discover the truth. The story celebrates Bilott but it doesn’t necessarily pat him on the back for doing the right thing. It is clear how easy it is to give up in these long battles against powerful institutions that have more resources but lack a conscience.
The movie does slightly delve into Bilott’s personal hardships as a result of his fight against DuPont (pay cuts, health issues, a deteriorating relationship with his wife and family), but that’s not the story that’s on display here. Ruffalo is strong and authentic in the role, his own passion for environmental and social activism shining through despite the rather dispassionate and stereotypical script. The real heart of the film is Bill Camp’s Wilbur Tennant, the instigator of the lawsuit and the victim that the audience grows most attached through throughout. His story is a reminder that even those who do the right thing can be scorned and is reflective of how, often, we would rather ignore something bad happening if we don’t think it affects us. How twisted is it that the man fighting to keep a community safe is ostracized because others believe in a corporation that is poisoning them over their neighbors?
A story like this can’t help but fall into cliches. Anne Hathaway does the best she can with what she’s given as “the wife,” though she seems desperate to be anything but. The quintessential cries of “How could they do that?” and “The system is rigged” echo from All the President’s Men through Erin Brockovich to more recent entries like Spotlight and The Post.
What is made abundantly clear is that this film was made by people who are passionate about the battle against corporate corruption. No amount of cliches can diminish that truth. Nothing here is a newsflash of brand new information—it’s a simple, terrifying reminder that these kind of things have been happening and are happening every single day and we can’t and shouldn’t ignore them. It asks what you have done lately to help make the world a better place. What have you done to fight the greed and corruption that infiltrates our homes, continuing to poison our bodies and our planet?
It may seem contrived to make a film about something like this nowadays. Why would we need a reminder of corruption and deceit when we see it in our news cycles every single day? But this story feels even more urgent in the current sociopolitical climate. The kind of reactionary anger it depicts is nothing new but it serves well to remind us all that the outrage we feel so often has been lurking beneath the surface for decades.
In a time when we’re constantly being called upon to do something to fight back against corporate giants and corrupt infrastructure, movies like this can be the perfect catalyst to inspire action if we can move past the heavy feeling of dread and defeat they deliver. Dark Waters doesn’t let you off the hook with a perfect happy ending that makes you believe in the power of one man against the establishment. It is simultaneously optimistic and depressing; it will make you feel like giving up but hopefully inspire you to get out and do something, anything.