WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) –
Dark Waters is a horror film. It is the terrifying story of corporate greed and the government’s complicity in the destruction of human lives when soulless corporations are allowed to self-regulate.
Dark Waters was inspired by a 2016 New York Times article about the civil action lawsuit against Dupont Chemicals from the citizens of Parkersburg West Virginia. It’s a very personal project for its star and producer, Mark Ruffalo, an avid environmentalist. He plays real-life attorney Robert Bilott, a Parkersburg native, who is living a comfortable life as a corporate attorney in Cincinnati when in 1998, he is approached by an acquaintance of his grandmother, Wilbur Tennant (a terrific Bill Camp). Tennant is a farmer who has suffered immensely because his property is adjacent to Dupont’s Washington Works manufacturing plant. Ironically, Bilott’s law firm, where he has just made a senior partner represents all the major Chemical companies, except Dupont. What starts off as a professional courtesy from Dupont releasing an EPA study and other documents quickly becomes acrimonious when Bilott realizes the damage the chemical pollution has racked on the local population and the blatant cover-up to ensure profits.
The film works best when it operates like a thriller with interesting visuals, editing, and fast pacing. It is less successful when it forges dramatic scenes together in an attempt to weave a coherent story. However, this seems necessary because the story follows a timeline that mirrors the protracted length of the court case, which went on for over a decade. The story tracks even longer than that as it opens on a spooky prologue reminiscent of Jaws-(what is in the water?) set in the 1970’s showing just how long contamination has been going on.
Anne Hathaway is miscast as Bilott’s supportive wife. At 15 years younger than Ruffalo and still gorgeous even when wearing unflattering wifey sweaters and sporting perms, Hathaway can certainly play the big scenes, but her character is woefully underwritten. Some of the supportive wife scenes feel clichéd and rote, no matter how good the Oscar-winning actress is. There is one exception, a brief scene in a hospital corridor where she tells her husband’s boss (Tim Robbins) just how she feels about him. Still, it just feels strange that she isn’t in her own movie playing a strong independent woman.
Ruffalo, fares much better, even though he is playing a character so opaque he has almost no charisma. He seems so emotionally unavailable, you wonder what his wife ever saw in him. This laid back internal presence is not the type of personality you acquaint with a hero, but perhaps it’s Bilott’s stoicism that makes him able to stay so focused, so dogged for so many years. There is none of Erin Brockovich’s brassy likability here. Fighting for what is right against a Goliath-like Dupont takes its toll on Bilott’s health and Ruffalo does a fantastic job of showing this both externally and internally.
Director Todd Haynes, whose work I have always admired proves he can handle a different genre with this involving and exciting film. Dark Waters is a fantastic story and an important story for all Americans to see and know. It is an alarming wake-up call. Corporate greed and the pursuit of profits is at the root of the Dupont chemical disaster. They did their own studies about the toxicity of PFAS (the chemicals used to make Teflon nonstick pans) and knew it was dangerous. That didn’t stop them from irresponsibly discarding the toxic waste and polluting a city’s water supply for decades to come. Carelessness that borders on criminal was influenced by supply and demand. After all, everyone wants nonstick cookware made with Teflon, which in turn is made from the forever chemicals classified as PFAS. A forever chemical is a chemical that never breaks down, never goes away, no matter how many decades or millennia pass. Teflon is now banned in the US, but 99% of all living things in the US have PFAS or another forever chemical in their blood.
See this film, it’s disturbing and infuriating- and it needs to be.