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By The River Of Sludge: A Review Of 'Dark Waters'

An incisive film about environmental pollution and activism, ‘Dark Waters’ is a sobering recent-history lesson

In the tradition of such films as Erin Brockovich and Silkwood comes Dark Waters. It’s a cinematic expose of how the chemical giant DuPont knowingly contaminated the waters surrounding their West Virginia plant with toxic C8 waste. Directed by Todd Haynes (who last directed Carol, and is known best for his ties to queer cinema), and starring Mark Ruffalo as Ohio corporate lawyer turned environmental activist Rob Bilott, the film is a challenging but ultimately rewarding watch. 

The true story kicks off with an opening sequence dating to the late 1970’s and polluting the West Virginia waterways had already begun. Then we fast forward to 1998 as a concerned farmer, Mr. Tennant, brings videotapes of the anomalies his farm has been experiencing to new Taft Law partner, Rob Bilott (Ruffalo). Tennant blames DuPont and their dumping of toxic waste upriver, and Bilott tries to refer the case elsewhere, explains his Ohio firm is into developing and defending such clients as DuPont. 

Bill Camp and Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters
Bill Camp as Wilbur Tennant and Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott | Focus Features

Pricked by his conscience and the fact that Tennant hails from his hometown and is an acquaintance of his grandmother, Bilott visits the West Virginia town and slowly realizes there is more to the cattle deaths and malformations than meets the eye. It’s at this point that the movie hits its stride, turning into a procedural that’s filled with detail, texture, and heart.

Mind you, Haynes doesn’t go for romanticizing the lawyer, or the subject matter. He may have played with timelines, and has particular instances happening as they do in this film treatment in order to create more drama and tension. But by and large, this is a sober, unemotional retelling of the events surrounding the legal tussle between Bilott and the giant conglomerate DuPont.

Here then is Ruffalo, leaving his tattered Hulk trousers at home. In this film outing, the only turning green we get is a metaphorical one, as Bilott becomes a reluctant warrior for the environment. He shuffles around, looks like a sad sack at times; giving us a lawyer who’s outwardly unremarkable, but is in possession of resilience and determination of a supreme order.

Anne Hathaway in Dark Waters
Anne Hathaway as Sarah Bilott | Focus Features

Anne Hathaway is the Incredible Sulk in this film, asked to do not much more than suffer silently, then explode in resentment when her husband gives an offhand remark. There is a turnaround to stoic supporting wife, which actually comes out of nowhere. It’s Bill Camp as the farmer Tennant, and Tim Robbins as Bilott’s immediate boss at the law firm, who gives us strong portrayals.

As I mentioned, the treatment is a surprise coming from Haynes—it’s very controlled and dry. The cinematography—a swirl of grays, and with several scenes of snow and sleet—helps in achieving this semblance of a bleak landscape. What color or fire there is comes from the cast and their muted, but effective, delivery. This film about pollution, about big business as uncaring “devils” is one devoid of much fireworks; but it’s a strong, well-meaning film that deserves to be watched.

Dark Waters is currently out in cinemas nationwide.