Directed by: Todd Haynes
Premise: Based on true events. A corporate defense attorney (Mark Ruffalo) who specializes in defending chemical companies investigates a possible contamination in his hometown. He discovers that DuPont knowingly poisoned entire communities.
What Works: Dark Waters dramatizes events that played out over nearly two decades and the filmmakers do an impressive job streamlining all of that information into a single feature film without sacrificing the integrity of the story. The expository information is presented in ways that are easily understandable and the filmmakers visualize it on screen dramatically and cinematically; especially impressive is a sequence about halfway through the film in which Mark Ruffalo’s character explains the case to his wife. Ruffalo plays Robert Bilott, the corporate attorney who led the case against DuPont, and this is an impressive performance. Actors tend to play lawyers as smooth and confident; Ruffalo plays Bilott as a passionate activist whose campaign for justice took a physical and psychological toll and the burden of the case is evident throughout Ruffalo’s performance. Also impressive is Bill Camp as farmer Wilbur Tennant. Camp comes across authentically of his station in life but he also gives Tennant dignity and intelligence; this man can see what’s wrong and he knows he has been doomed by this company and the film visualizes the human cost of DuPont’s actions through him. That’s the respect in which Dark Waters is subversive. What DuPont did was horrible but the company was often defended by the very people it poisoned because DuPont had embedded itself into the economy and identity of the community. Dark Waters unsettles our complacency with the presence of corporations in our lives and communities and especially the assumption that legal and governmental systems are on our side.
What Doesn’t: Most of Dark Waters’ subversive impact remains intellectual. We watch and understand what DuPont did to these people and the story of Wilbur Tennant and his family gives us some sense of the human cost. But the impact of DuPont’s actions was so severe and so far reaching that the film could have, and probably should have, done more to vividly capture the horror of what DuPont did to this community. Dark Waters ends on a mostly optimistic note but given how many people died and how many more had their lives ruined because of the corporation’s actions makes the ending incongruous with what the movie has to show us. As a legal procedural, Dark Waters is a mostly average entry in its genre. The film moves along mechanically and relies on a lot of familiar sorts of scenes in which lawyers pore over documents. Despite the stakes of the story, Dark Waters does not create a lot of drama and the emotional impact of this film remains staid. Given the facts in the case, this film should have made a bigger emotional impact.
Bottom Line: Dark Waters tells an important story in a competent but undistinguished way. It tells this story well enough to be engaging and informative but Dark Waters falls short of conveying the scale of the horror wrought by DuPont.
Episode: #780 (December 15, 2019)