Movie Review: Dark Waters
By Matthew Huntley
December 22, 2019
Despite “Dark Waters” being based on an ongoing true story, it’s so blatant with its point of view that it has us asking the question, is this for real? The movie goes to such lengths to push our emotional buttons and make sure we understand its plot that we suspect the filmmakers didn’t think much of our intelligence and therefore felt the need to coddle us into thinking and feeling a certain way. They’re also either too in love with their own message or don’t have enough faith in their ability to convey it subtly. Whatever the case, the film tries too hard and it loses us.
All this comes as a surprise given the talent behind and in front of the camera. Director Todd Haynes helms the picture, which is arguably his most safe and mainstream to date after such colorful and offbeat works as “Velvet Goldmine,” “Far From Heaven” and “Carol.” Because “Dark Waters” ends up being so mediocre by comparison, Haynes should stick with the colorful and offbeat; they suit him better.
Mark Ruffalo is the film’s producer and star. He plays Robert Bilott, an environmental lawyer at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a high-profile firm out of Cincinnati that serves mostly large corporate clients. Bilott has just made partner and his wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway), also an attorney, has just taken leave from her job to raise their newborn son.
The Bilotts are happy and comfortable at the moment, but that soon changes when dairy farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), along with his brother Jim (Jim Azelvandre), storm into Rob’s tidy office, dressed down in dirt-stained jeans, plaid shirts and rustic baseball caps. Wilbur has never met Rob but he insists he watch his VHS tapes and review other evidence that show how the DuPont chemical company’s waste, which feeds into the creek near the Tennant farm, is killing Wilbur’s cows, which have started twitching, hopping about uncontrollably, and charging Wilbur and his farmhands instead of allowing themselves to be milked. In addition to the VHS tapes, Wilbur has collected the cows’ abnormally large organs and hidden them in his freezer.
Even though Rob tells Wilbur he’s not a plaintiff or private citizen lawyer, he decides to drive the three hours from Cincinnati to Parkersburg, West Virginia and visit the Tennant farm. After all, it was Rob’s grandmother, who lives just outside Parkersburg, who gave Wilbur Rob’s contact information. So, in way, Rob feels he has somewhat of a personal obligation to check thing outs.
What Rob sees and learns on the Tennant farm doesn’t sit well with him and he suddenly finds himself asking his boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for permission to conduct a standard, by-the-book investigation into DuPont, just to see if anything is amiss and confirm if the company is, as Wilbur claims, “trying to cover something up.” Rob starts digging further and, by and by, one document, lab report and obscure acronym quickly leads to another until it becomes clear DuPont does, in fact, have something to hide, namely that their products, with the most popular being the ubiquitous, non-stick coating substance Teflon, are pollutants and their improper disposal in the Parkersburg water supply are creating a public health crisis. It would take years, but scientists would eventually find a “probable link” between DuPont’s chemicals and health disorders such as kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis.
Of course, DuPont executives like Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber) are quick to dismiss the accusations, and when the soft-spoken Rob presses him at a black tie event, in order to paint Donnelly as evil a man as possible, the script has him drop an F-bomb for all to hear.
Nevertheless, Rob obtains a court order for DuPont to hand over all its documents related to perfluorooctanoic acid, cryptically referred to as “PFOA,” and before he knows it, a truckload of boxes containing more than 110,000 documents shows up at Taft’s front door. For the next few months, Rob all but lives in a storage room, sifting each and every file, labeling them according to year with Post-it Notes, and getting the full scope on DuPont. He eventually pieces together a chilling narrative and explains to a concerned Sarah, who’s now pregnant with their second child, the company has been poisoning the people (and animals) of Parkersburg by contaminating the town’s water supply with unsafe levels of PFOA. He finds the company’s shady practices go as far back as 1951 and finally, in 1999, about a year after Wilbur reached out to Rob, Rob files a federal suit against DuPont, which commences an ongoing fight to bring justice to anyone harmed by the company.
As the film chronicles its two decades, we get the usual assortment of questions, accusations, interviews, courtroom battles, public health screenings, etc. often associated with Hollywood legal dramas. It’s clear to us early on that Rob is a good, humble man, willing to put in long hours, sacrifice time with his family, take pay cuts, and suffer both mentally and physically for his work (just as the film depicts, the real Rob endured stroke-like symptoms related to unusual brain activity, which were likely precipitated by stress brought on by the case).
But rather than simply show Rob behaving as a hero, the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa, based on Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times Magazine article, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” also makes it a point to tell us, and not just once, but several times. There are at least three different scenes during which various characters speak explicitly about the good Rob is doing and that fighting a malfeasant corporation as large is DuPont is “what justice is all about.” It’s as if Carnahan and Correa didn’t trust us to pick up on Rob’s “goodism” on our own, that it had to be underlined. This cajoling of the audience continues up through the end, when Johnny Cash’s version of “I Won’t Back Down” plays over the closing credits.
It’s a shame the movie feels the need to overemphasize its main character’s mission and values because this approach ends up being frustrating. The story “Dark Waters” wants to expose is a relevant and important one, but the filmmakers don’t make us think very hard, consider the facts impartially, or form opinions of our own. The script does this for us, spelling things out in layman’s terms and in too straightforward a manner. And rather than assume we’d be interested in the law and how it applies to a complex case like the people of Parkersburg vs DuPont, Haynes instead opts for easy emotional payoffs and flagrant grandstanding, like when Rob grills DuPont’s CEO during a deposition and the other DuPont lawyers at the table whisper, “We’re done here” and “We’re going on seven hours,” as if we needed to be reminded of Rob’s relentless dedication to his job and the common people he’s representing. And just to make him seem more heroic and vulnerable, the film adds routine thriller elements to the mix, like Rob feeling paranoid because he thinks someone is following him or hesitating to start his car because it might explode.
If some aspects of the film feel manipulative, others feel over-the-top, including Bill Pullman as trial lawyer Harry Deitzler, who works with Rob on the case. Whether or not Pullman’s accent and eccentricities invoke the real Deitzler is beside the point; his performance is too theatrical to be taken seriously and he hovers on being annoying. Plus, the movie is too willing to paint its other minor characters in simple black-white terms, with those from the DuPont legal camp only allowed to be evil and the families and blue-collar workers affected by DuPont’s chemicals only allowed to be victims. For a story about such a long, complicated case, “Dark Waters” is not very complicated.
For the record, I’m not saying that what happens in “Dark Waters” isn’t necessarily inaccurate or a misrepresentation of the truth, but accurate or not, it doesn’t have to patronize us and the filmmakers would have been wise to let up on the melodrama a bit and allow the material to speak for itself. This is ultimately why I think it would have been better suited as a documentary that heard from both sides equally, presenting the story objectively and making it more well-rounded and interesting. Granted, we would likely walk away from such a non-fiction version with the same feelings “Dark Waters” forces upon us, but at least we would have developed those feelings on our own.