“Dark Waters” is scarier than any horror movie you’ve seen in your lifetime. It tells the true story of a corporate defense attorney who decided to take on the case of a small-town farmer from West Virginia who believed his cows were dying from toxic chemicals in the water. The real-life lawyer, Robert Bilott, went from corporate defender to corporate antagonist when he unearthed evidence that the DuPont company had been dumping unregulated toxic chemicals into the water supply and had been burying barrels of it into the soil for decades, despite knowing of its life-threatening properties. It’s a classic story of corporate greed, corruption, and one man’s moral crusade against the largest chemical company in the world.
Normally I would praise a story for being as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, but in this case it saddens me. The regulatory debate over the chemicals at play in “Dark Waters” is still ongoing, despite their irrefutable toxic nature. There are still over 600 unregulated industrial chemicals, some of which fall into the “forever chemical” category, meaning that they do not biodegrade or break down. What’s even more disturbing is that these chemicals are still in industrial use – some of your food wrappers are made using PFAS chemicals, as well as non-stick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics. Why the hell are we still using these if we know they are harmful to humans and the environment??
The marketing campaign for “Dark Waters” has been virtually nonexistent. There was one trailer and one highly generic poster that didn’t generate any excitement. Actually, calling the poster “generic” would be an understatement – it looks more like an afterthought. Todd Haynes, who directed the film, may not be on his highest artistic level here, but the storytelling is exceptional. The attention to detail is there. Nothing is left out, which is refreshing in a film based on a true story. I often get frustrated after-the-fact because key events are changed or important details are overlooked, but there’s nothing murky in “Dark Waters.” It’s as cut and dry as can be. For some, it may be a bit of a slog, but for me it was riveting.
“Dark Waters” plays like the legal case it is about. It follows Bilott’s every move, both in his professional and personal life. It’s deliberate in its pace, but there’s still plenty of drama to captivate you. How anyone could find this story uninteresting is beyond me. The intellectual nature of the picture really worked for me, but with its grey tone and intense dialog, I could see why general audiences may be turned off. I’ll admit, the cinematography is quite mundane. The color palette is mostly monotone. The performances are understated, but then so are the real-life people. Mark Ruffalo expertly plays Robert Bilott because they are both understated individuals. Bilott is a hero not because he wears a cape and flies, but because he took the fight that no one else was willing to take. Ruffalo is admirable because he chose to make this fight known to the public without censoring its most important content. Bilott fights not just for his firm or his family, but for the entire world. It’s inspiring.
“Dark Waters” is the most important film of the year, yet it hasn’t even broken a million dollars at the box office. It might not break-even on its $6.5 million dollar budget. It’s a crying shame. It thrives on quality storytelling, intense drama, and expert performances. The danger is felt not just on the screen, but in our own lives. Ruffalo exudes passion in his performance, and I found him absolutely magnetic. The artistry of the film may suffer from bland cinematography, but artistry isn’t the point here. “Dark Waters” feels starker and more poignant than many other films in its own genre. It’s as unafraid as the man it is about, and doesn’t ring hollow with self-approval or a falsely optimistic ending. I wouldn’t hesitate to call “Dark Waters” informative, and outside of documentaries I usually can’t say that. Please inform yourself and see this movie.