By Adam Ray Palmer
Todd Haynes, a formidable director to say the least, returns with a powerful drama that is a must-watch if you are simply a human being.
What Dark Waters reveals in its two-hour runtime is nothing short of a horror. Its insight is only matched by the real-life haunting tale. Let’s discuss…
Based on the The New York Times magazine article "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare" by Nathaniel Rich, Dark Waters is adapted for the screen by Mario Correa and stars Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins and Bill Camp.
The story is simple, yet also complicated in equal measures. For a true story, it sounds so farfetched, and for the human race, you really hope it isn’t genuine. Robert Bilott (Ruffalo) is a corporate defence lawyer working for law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. One day, farmer Wilbur Tennant (Camp), who knows Robert's grandmother, asks him to investigate a number of unexplained deaths in West Virginia. Tennant connects the deaths to the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont, and gives Robert a mountain of evidence to proceed.
When Robert takes on the case, he visits the farm and sees 190 cattle have died, and that’s enough to see something major is wrong. After a quick, small lawsuit, Robert discovers chemicals dumped by DuPont near the farm might not be regulated by the EPA. Robert narrows it down to the use of PFOA, a perfluorooctanoic acid, which is used to manufacture Teflon and used in American homes for non-stick pans. DuPont has been running tests of the effect of PFOA for decades, finding that it causes cancer and birth defects, but did not make the findings public.
What ensues is a long-winded court battle, which climaxes with DuPont telling the locals they can get their settlement money after donating blood, and so, nearly 70,000 people donate to the study. Robert decides to take each defendant's case to DuPont, one at a time. He wins the first three multimillion-dollar settlements against DuPont, and as the credits roll, we learn DuPont settles the class action for $671 million.
In just three paragraphs, I’ve summed up decades of narrative and evidence that has put so many people at risk, even killing lots too. And now, in 2020, the real Robert Bilott claims that PFOA is in 99% of humans on the planet – how frightening. Dark Waters is a fascinating movie that hooks you in within the first five minutes, just like the Ruffalo-anchored movie Spotlight in 2015.
There are many similarities to the 2016 Best Picture winner actually including the narrative pacing, the moody cinematography, and also the personal and up-close framing. It’s the pacing and camerawork where Todd Haynes really gets the most of this moving drama. For such a difficult subject manner that, to be fair, may go over a lot of people’s heads (science stuff!), Haynes does really well in keeping the engagement high. He metaphorically holds your hand all the way through, making sure the audience understands everything that happens along the timeline.
Alongside Haynes being a stellar component to the success of Dark Waters, Ruffalo and Hathaway deserve recognition too. There’s fewer men in Hollywood that consistently bash out incredible leading man performances than Mark. Spotlight, Shutter Island and now Dark Waters are all movies that need such strong, haunting performances – and Mark delivers every time. Hathaway’s screen time in Dark Waters is limited, but when she’s in shot, she certainly makes the most of it. She’s fragile, yet so autonomous. She relies on Robert so much, but also provides him with the strength to continue.
On the whole, Dark Waters is a triumph. If this was released later in the year, we would be talking about award season recognition for sure. Todd Haynes is back to his best, drawing in the audience to his expert framing and oddly whimsical filmmaking. There’s always an essence of magic in a Todd Haynes film, namely Carol, and it definitely makes an imprint here on Dark Waters. For such a tough subject matter, I still feel this movie was made with compassion and warmth to the victims, and Haynes was the perfect shot-caller for that.
Cineroom’s Rating: 4.5 stars
Dark Waters is out now in cinemas worldwide – certificate 12A (well, when they're open)