The Movie Waffler New Release Review - DARK WATERS | The Movie Waffler

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New Release Review - DARK WATERS

dark waters review
The story of lawyer Robert Bilott's crusade against the Dupont chemical company.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Todd Haynes

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Bill Camp, Mare Winningham, Victor Garber,  William Jackson Harper

dark waters poster


Todd Haynes opens his legal drama/eco-thriller Dark Waters with a 1975 set vignette in which a trio of young nocturnal skinny-dippers are interrupted by employees of a neighbouring Dupont chemical facility spraying some sort of substance into the waters of the otherwise idyllic lake. It plays like the opening of one of those politicised monster movies screenwriter John Sayles once specialised in, and when Haynes cuts to a below the surface POV shot, some unseen menace lurking below the dangling feet of the swimmers, it's impossible not to think of Jaws (I doubt the 1975 designation is a coincidence here). In Haynes' film, it's no longer safe to go in the water, but not because of the presence of sharks, piranhas or mutant gators. The threat here is the water itself, the lakes and rivers dumping grounds for Dupont's toxic waste.


dark waters review

Cincinnati based corporate lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) learns about Dupont's actions when he receives a visit from Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer whose cattle have been dying off in vast numbers due to drinking from the contaminated waters. As his job is to defend corporations like Dupont, Bilott is sceptical at first, but a visit to Parkersburg, a West Virginia town whose human and animal residents are slowly being poisoned, opens his eyes to the truth about about Dupont's disregard for human life and the environment. Bilott begins a legal crusade against Dupont, one which adversely impacts his career, strains his marriage, and drags on for two decades.

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The films of Haynes usually take place in a cinematic netherworld, usually based around the filmmaker's unique brand of nostalgia for classic Hollywood and mid 20th century Americana. He has tackled the issue of chemical poisoning in the past with his icily comic 1995 drama Safe, in which Julianne Moore plays a woman who develops a hyper-sensitivity to the most benign levels of chemical activity, so perhaps this is an issue close to his heart. Yet Dark Waters feels like a movie made as a favour or an obligation, "one for them", lacking as it does the unique visual stylings we expect from a Todd Haynes film.


dark waters review

Dark Waters is largely interchangeable with a dozen other political thrillers, an exercise in dramatic box ticking that leaves no clichΓ© on the cutting room floor. Does our hero find himself seated in his car, paranoid that if he turns his ignition key, a bomb will be set off? Of course he does. Do highly educated professionals ask other highly educated professionals to dumb down their jargon so the audience can understand? Yep. Does a spouse (Anne Hathaway, for some reason sporting the sort of hairdo favoured by 1960s astronauts' wives) exist merely so our protagonist can have someone to explain the plot to, and to later display how committed to his cause he is when she argues that he's neglecting his family? You betcha.

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Throughout Dark Waters, you can't help but feel like you've seen this story before, just with a new evil corporation swapped in this time. By focussing on Bilott's legal crusade while largely ignoring Dupont's victims, it lacks the human touch that someone like Clint Eastwood might have brought to this tale. With its white collar hero battling to save the blue collar folk of Parkersburg, it verges uncomfortably on becoming the class equivalent of a white saviour narrative. Ruffalo is always value for money however, and his sweaty, nervous performance keeps us hooked even when the movie around him is descending into the most generic storytelling imaginable.


dark waters review

The revelations around Dupont's treatment of the environment and their workers/consumers are the shocking stuff of dystopian sci-fi, and the obligatory closing cards make clear the wider negative impact the company has had on the world. You might think twice about drinking your tap water after watching Dark Waters, but that's a result of factoids that you could have learned from a documentary on the subject. Much like Dupont, Dark Waters would benefit from caring more about its people.

Dark Waters is in UK/ROI cinemas February 28th.



2020 film reviews