DARK WATERS movie poster | ©2019 Focus Features

DARK WATERS movie poster | ©2019 Focus Features

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, William Jackson Harper
Writers: Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, based on the article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich
Director: Todd Haynes
Distributor: Focus Features
Release Date: November 22, 2019

DARK WATERS is not be confused with the 2002 Japanese horror film DARK WATER or its 2005 American remake. Instead, DARK WATERS, like ERIN BROCKOVICH and numerous other features and telefilms, is a fact-based story about a legal battle over a corporation poisoning a water supply. The main thematic difference is that the stakes and consequences in DARK WATERS are alarmingly higher. It elicits fury and fear in equal and great amounts, but this has more to do with what’s being said than its presentation.

Mark Ruffalo, one of DARK WATERS’ producers, plays corporate attorney Robert Bilott. When we meet Rob in 1998, he’s just been promoted to partner at the prestigious Taft law firm in Ohio. Rob’s specialty is defending chemical corporations. He therefore seems like almost the last lawyer on the planet who would wind up suing chemical giant DuPont. Certainly, that’s what Rob thinks when he’s approached by West Virginia dairy farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp). Wilbur believes the DuPont landfill up the hill from his property has contaminated his water supply and is killing all his cows.

When he finally, reluctantly agrees to look into the matter, Rob, who’s used to looking at things from the corporation’s perspective, suspects other causes. But eventually, Rob’s drawn down the rabbit hole, partly by the horrible things he finds not just on Wilbur’s farm but in the whole area. Rob also finds that DuPont, a company with which he’s had friendly dealings in the past, has gotten away with putting chemicals in the landfill because the substances are unknown to, and therefore unregulated, by the EPA.

DARK WATERS is intelligent and well-crafted, but there’s so much to cover – the timeline stretches from 1998 to essentially the present – that some potentially intriguing details may have gotten sacrificed to running time. While anything is possible, and this reviewer doesn’t know more about the real Bilott than is presented in the film, it seems unlikely that a corporate attorney working with chemical companies has never come across some version of this issue before. It feels like we should know a little more about his change of heart than we get here. Instead, DARK WATERS follows a procedural playbook, with a protagonist who goes from ordinary guy to a lone hero with a cause that endangers his marriage, his employment, his health and potentially his life.

Screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan, adapting Nathaniel Rich’s article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” are adroit at keeping things moving and getting their people to sound like regular humans. They are aided greatly by this is a terrific cast, led by Ruffalo, who puts his soul into a man who presses on even when he’s completely overwhelmed. Camp is excellent. Anne Hathaway makes the most of her role as Rob’s wife, who goes back and forth between resentment and admiration. Tim Robbins is solid as Rob’s bewildered boss, and Bill Pullman is a lot of fun as a West Virginia attorney who becomes involved in the proceedings. Victor Garber puts conviction into his portrayal of the DuPont executive we see most. William Jackson Harper (Chidi on THE GOOD PLACE) deserves special mention for putting forth the opposition argument with passion and certitude.

Director Todd Haynes has a good eye for what puts us in the right place and era. He also knows when and how to show us the damage done, and when to return to pushing the story forward. He does create some great moments, such as a wordless scene where Rob, seeking paperwork evidence, is confronted by a room full of boxes that’s reminiscent of the warehouse at the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. His quest, in a way, is just as heroic as Indy’s. It just takes longer and has fewer rolling boulders.

DARK WATERS doesn’t get away from its legal drama format, but it has both intellectual and emotional verisimilitude. When it’s over, Ruffalo’s slumping, stricken courtroom warrior sticks with us. So do the alarming questions raised by what we learn.

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