Dark Waters (2019)
Dark Waters (2019)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: December 6th, 2019 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Todd Haynes Actors: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Denise Dal Vera, Victor Garber, Bill Pullman

 


 

I

n Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 1975, three teens decide to skinny dip late at night. Their revelry is thwarted by a containment services boat, which patrols the murky waters (a thoroughly unnecessary cold open, which establishes nothing essential). Jumping forward to 1998 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a newly appointed partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, begins his routine working day as a corporate defense attorney. He’s interrupted to momentarily deal with farmer Wilbur Earl Tennant (Bill Camp) – a man who happens to know Bilott’s grandmother – claiming that DuPont has been poisoning the local creek. But Rob is the kind of lawyer who would defend DuPont, not help an individual family against a giant company.

Shortly thereafter, Rob travels back to West Virginia to visit his grandmother, curious about Tennant and the situation in his hometown, which seems to involve bizarre mutations in the livestock, coupled with aggressive, rabid-like behavior. Plus, Wilbur has lost a whopping 190 cattle deaths, likely due to the runoff from the Dry Run Landfill installed nearby by chemical goliath DuPont. Something terribly toxic is going on, despite the EPA and the government turning a blind eye; a cover-up is undoubtedly in the mix.

When extra profits can be made, it’s not surprising that human life (and animal life) becomes of secondary importance. This isn’t the first time, nor the last, that a major corporation’s evil deeds will be the subject of a legal thriller. As Bilott starts digging into the potential for illegally-disposed hazardous waste – and other environmental and health conspiracies – there just isn’t much tension, thanks to the fact that it’s so obvious who the villain is (nicely represented by Victor Garber as DuPont executive Phil Donnelly). “You’re seeing ghosts.”

Even when Rob confronts Donnelly at the Ohio Chemical Alliance annual dinner, creating a scene, it’s not unexpected; the procedural nature of this investigatory drama is considerably formulaic. From intermittent familial spats with wife Sarah (Anne Hathaway, who has virtually no role here, save for being pregnant in every other scene), to an overload of discovery documents, to a sometimes disapproving yet sometimes supportive boss (Tim Robbins), to DuPont using their vast wealth to stymie the opposition, the film moves with routine pacing and few cinematic deviations. Astoundingly, there aren’t even typical editing gimmicks being employed to spice up the proceedings. At certain points, when Rob uncovers bombshell clues, they hold less of a surprise than they should, again thanks to the indisputable avenue of the antagonism.

Years tick past on the screen as well, showing the slowness of the case (yet another familiar technique) and the countless ways in which the poison (C-8 or PFOA) has permeated and negatively affected the lives of everyone around it. The futility is exasperating. Strangely, as the magnitude of DuPont’s crimes is unearthed, there are still so few ups and downs; the tone is even and consistent, remaining somber throughout. During a sequence in which Rob breaks down in anger, yelling at the corruption of his chemical titan nemesis, he can barely increase his voice to a convincing degree of frustration. Robbins gets an opportunity to shout as well, though it’s just as flimsy, not due to the volume but because his argument is based on a group of lawyers taking the moral high ground against a corrupt company. This is all further matched by the cinematography, which can’t seem to find colors not heavily muted in grays.

“These companies – they have all the money, all the time.” Perhaps the most appealing aspect of “Dark Waters” is its basis on a true story, which recounts key events in the actual fight against Teflon and DuPont – even if some of the players are fictional. And the indifference by head honchos is staggering, though certainly far from shocking; basically all of the facts are incensing, as they should be. Yet once again, regardless of the importance of the picture, the execution prevents it from being a project that will reach an appropriately wide audience; it’s just not that engaging. “Our government is captive to DuPont.”

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10