A corporate defense attorney takes on an environmental lawsuit against a chemical company that exposes a lengthy history of pollution. (from IMDb)
When it comes to politics, it seems fair to assume that most people realize that money talks. However, through clever advertising and branding across multiple generations of consumers, we tend to easily trust big companies making everyday consumer products. Dark Waters is a film inspired by a New York Times expose (“The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich) about a small town in West Virginia being the victims of DuPont dumping chemicals into their water. The movie follows lawyer Rob Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, who is approached by farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) in 1998, asking for his help in exposing DuPont’s dirty deeds. Bilott reluctantly takes the case and is immediately met by opposition on all sides. The case ends up dragging on for almost two decades, with Bilott putting everything on the line for it. Through the facts he uncovers during his investigation, he finds that DuPont has been dumping a “forever chemical” called C8 (or PFOA) into the West Virginia water supply, leading to birth defects and various forms of cancer in residents and factory workers. Even scarier yet, the chemical has been used to make the Teflon coating on frying pans across the globe for decades. Even if it’s not as dangerous in small doses, it’s still terrifying to consider.
As a movie, Dark Waters is a very slow burn. It’s a drama drenched in a dark visual color scheme and an ominous tone throughout, coating every scene in grades of grays, blues and tans. It’s a bleak, bleak affair for sure. There are thriller aspects to the way director Todd Haynes tells the story, which keeps it interesting (like playing up a little of Rob’s paranoia), but the relevance of the story to just about every person is a disturbing revelation and the most gripping part about it. Otherwise, the movie is very much a law-driven investigation that Bilott is making, with very little victory along the way. Thankfully, Ruffalo is engaging to watch and he pours a lot of passion into this project. Anne Hathaway plays his wife, Sarah, who supports Rob through the years, but isn’t just a silent pushover. Hathaway is fantastic here, giving Sarah a surprising amount of depth in the few scenes she’s in. I really liked seeing how real their relationship is. Tim Robbins is also solid as Rob’s boss, Taft, and Bill Camp turns in an impressive performance as the inflicted farmer who borders on delusional and paranoid at times, till you realize he’s not wrong at all.
I was also surprised how many times the movie showed scenes in a church or acknowledged the Bilotts having a foundation in the Christian faith. Sarah seems to be the one with the most faith, praying at the dinner table, encouraging Rob in his crusade that it’s the “Christian thing” to do, and even sending their kids to private school (We even see them singing hymns in church). At the same time, Rob comes to the belief that they’re on their own in this battle against corporations and big business. It’s a very raw and honest feeling, but one could also assume Haynes is trying to tell the audience that “God can’t help you either, we’re on our own,” which just isn’t true. However, I don’t think this interpretation of the film’s theme is so clear as to be certain that’s the message they’re trying to convey. But, in the end, it’s a rather hopeless film that is likely to encourage some viewers to toss their frying pans in the trash and start an anti-chemical Facebook group, while others with either write it off as a downer of a movie or just leave feeling defeated. However we process the story, I think there’s enough relevancy here–whether it’s just to be more mindful of the chemicals we are trusting, or the inspiring persistence of an underdog just trying to use his gifts and position to the best of his ability to help others.
The content of Dark Waters is rather rough at times. Most of it is profanity, with two spoken “F” words (and a young kid hearing one of them and saying “What’s “fack?”), an array of cuss words, and a surprising amount of blasphemy (which is curious given the Christian traits of the Bilott family). The opening scene takes place in 1975 where we see a couple teens skinny dipping in a lake that DuPont is actively polluting. It’s a very dimly lit scene, but we briefly see them start to disrobe from behind and then the bare butt of one of them under the water. Towards the end of the movie, one of the Bilotts’ sons asks Sarah what a “hooker” is. She’s stunned by this, but one of the other sons corrects him that the word is “prostitute,” which leads Sarah to ask where they heard of this, and they reveal that it’s through one of their classes where Mary Magdelene was mentioned. Otherwise, when it comes to violence, the worst is when Tennant shoots one of his cows a couple times because it’s acting violent, and we see it lying in a pool of blood. We also see discolored cow organs wrapped in foil and VHS quality video footage of rotting cow carcasses and deformed insides. It’s pretty gross.
Dark Waters is a bleak film, but one that seeks to shine a light on the corruption often covered up by large corporations more concerned with the almighty dollar than people’s well-being. It’s a scary thing indeed, and Dark Waters is disturbingly eye-opening. As entertainment, it’s pretty slow and overall very dark, but fans of dramas and investigative mysteries will probably especially enjoy it.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 3/1/20)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
Along with the feature film in HD, the Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital combo pack version of Dark Waters offers some bonus content. The Blu-Ray disc features are as follows:
Uncovering Dark Waters (5:38) is a short making-of featurette about using some of the real people from the case in the movie, filming and picking locations, and working with the director, Todd Haynes. Ruffalo talks about signing on to the project after talking to Rob who said he’d tell him “everything” about the case. (1 “a” word)
The Cost of Being a Hero (5:01) is about Rob’s struggle through the years with the legal fight and the impact it had on their family. Mark and Anne talk about playing Rob and Sarah.
The Real People (2:28) – Lastly, this one focuses a little more on the real people who appear in the film, like Rob and Sarah’s cameo, the Kigers, Tennant’s brother, and Bucky Bailey.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 3/1/20)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: The opening scene takes place in 1975 where we see a couple teens skinny dipping in a lake that DuPont is actively polluting. It’s a very dimly lit scene, but we briefly see them start to disrobe from behind and then the bare butt of one of them under the water; Towards the end of the movie, one of the Bilott’s sons asks Sarah what a “hooker” is. She’s stunned by this, but one of the other sons corrects him that the word is “prostitute,” which leads Sarah to ask where they heard of this, and they reveal that it’s through one of their classes where Mary Magdelene was mentioned.
Vulgarity/Language: 2 “F” words (also, one of the Bilotts young kids says “what’s ‘fack’?”), 2 “S” words, 8 “J-sus,” 1 “J-sus Chr-st,” 3 “g*dd*mn,” 8 “h*ll,” 7 “d*mn,” 2 “S.O.B.,” 1 “*ssh*le,” 2 “a” words, 2 “G-d,” 2 “For G-d’s sake,” 1 “For Chr-st’s sake,” 1 “p*ssing,” 2 “cr*p,” 1 “balls,” 1 “Oh my L-rd,” 1 “Oh my G-d”
Alcohol/Drugs: Some teens are briefly seen with beer by a lake; Rob and some of his legal team have drinks in a restaurant; Some people have drinks at a Christmas party; Sarah is seen drinking wine with dinner
Blood/Gore: Tennant shows Rob some raw cow parts to show him how diseased his cows have become, showing him a gall bladder in a wrap of tin foil, a piece of teeth still attached to some gums and bone, a dismembered hoof floating in a jar, and a red, fleshy blob of a tumor wrapped in foil; Tennant is forced to shoot a violent cow. With the second shot, we see some blood squirt out and onto his face. The camera then pans back to show the cow lying in a pool of blood; Rob watches a VHS tape that shows a dead cow with a hollow eye and flies crawling around and into it. Tennant talks about cutting open a cow and we see a close-up shot of rotting teeth and meaty gore while he talks about how sick they are; We see some blotches on Tennant’s arm that might be cancerous or from needle injections; We see patches of fur missing from a couple dogs during the movie; We see black and white photos of lab rats cut open with their organs exposed. We also see a deformed baby’s face missing a nostril
Violence: A cow charges Tennant who shoots it with his rifle. He approaches it lying there and its head lifts up and lunges so he shoots it again, causing him to fly backward. With the second shot, we see some blood squirt out and onto his face. The camera then pans back to show the cow lying in a pool of blood; Rob watches a VHS tape that shows a dead cow with a hollow eye and flies crawling around and into it. Tennant talks about cutting open a cow and we see a close-up shot of rotting teeth and meaty gore while he talks about how sick they are; We see a house on fire but no one was inside; A man collapses with a seizure on the floor. We then see him in a hospital bed.