Dark Waters (2019) Review
THE DARK TRUTH BEHIND
THE “FOREVER CHEMICAL” EXPOSED
As many theatrical feature film endeavors have delved into fictional arena to find its narrative storytelling, others have taken strides into the more “real world”, with various accounts (albeit through a cinematic filmmaking lens) of depicting / examining lives and events of world and how sometimes the truth (the real truth) comes to light, which has been overlooked and / or suppressed due to its implications surrounding it. Taking on big corporations, exposing a hidden truth, or revealing an unspoken revelation, these narratives ring true within their dramatic storytelling, which is aided by its “based on a true story” framework; adding credence and palpability within its tale. Of course, Hollywood (over the years) has taken an interest in these narratives; producing such films like Zero Dark Thirty, Spotlight, The Report, Vice, Concussion, and several others. Now, Focus Features and director Todd Haynes presents the latest feature to tackle (or rather “uncover”) the hard truth in the movie Dark Waters. Does the film find its narrative within its hidden truth or does it get lost within its own real world meaning?
Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is a Cincinnati, Ohio attorney for Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a firm that represents major corporations, including DuPont, one of the world’s most powerful chemical manufacturers. With his wife, Sarah Bilott (Anne Hathaway) his side in supporting him and a promising career ahead, Bilott plans to elevate his position with the firm’s hierarchy; securing himself a lasting future there with their corporate clients. However, a sudden change occurs when one Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a lowly cattle farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, seeking Bilott to represent him. Wilbur’s cows have been getting sick, going insane, and dying off at an alarming rate, he’s convinced it’s because of DuPont poisoning the nearby water supply. Through personal ties and against the wishes of his own colleagues, Bilott decides to help Tennant; uncovering the shocking truth through his investigation of DuPont’s dealings and management and immediately drawing ire from the industry giant; seeking to silence both Bilott and Tennant from exposing the company’s dark secrets.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
While I do love a good fictional cinematic narrative (no matter what genre it comes from), the idea of a “real life” tale (adapted as a feature length motion picture) has always intrigued me as I usual tend to gravitate towards such projects. While there have been many “based on true story” type of endeavors (again, from different styles of film genres), the narratives of either uncovering the truth and / or taking on the establishment (i.e the government or big corporations) has been a singular point of interest; finding the “hard truth” buried underneath coverups and legal matters. Maybe because these truths are usually something “big” and that have shocking revelations applications that many do now know; exposing true deed…whether good, bad, or informative. All of this is wrapped in the guise of a dramatic storytelling with the film bringing a “cinematic quality” of real-world events. Again, it’s just something about it that I find fascinating.
This brings me back to talking about Dark Waters, a 2019 film eco-political drama that seeks to examine the legal actions set that one man undertakes against the large corporation of DuPont. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie when it was first initial announcement back in 2018. So, my initial introduction (i.e. first look) of the project was when the film’s movie trailer was released a few months back; presenting the film’s premise and setting the overall tone for this motion picture. After seeing it, I was definitely intrigued to see the movie as it was one of those “based on a true story” endeavors that looked to have plenty of “real world” substance to deliver something profound within its cinematic undertaking. In truth, I was definitely curious to see the movie’s plot unfold as I really didn’t know much about it (I was a teenager / young adult during this time and really didn’t pay much attention to it), so I was wanted to more the mystery behind DuPont and what caused the stir. Thus, even though it wasn’t as heavily promoted as some of the other movie releases, I went to see Dark Waters a week after its initial release date. I was a bit “backed up” in my movie reviews, so I delayed my review of the film a few weeks later. So, now is the time to share my thoughts on the feature. And what did you think of it? Well, it was great and better than I was expected to like it. While there were a few problems I had with, Dark Waters proves to be an effective political thriller that fines its strength within its palpable narrative and a stirring / compelling performance from its main lead. This movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel within its cinematic filmmaking nuances, but rather excels in its raw storytelling of shocks and revelations from its material.
Dark Waters is directed by Todd Haynes, whose previous directorial works includes such movies like Far from Heaven, Carol, and Spotlight. Given his past endeavors on uncovering the truth (most notably with the success of Spotlight), Haynes seems like a perfect fit for a job to helm a project like this. To that end, Haynes succeeds; approaching the source material with an attention to detail of examining Robert Bilott’s case against DuPont and how the proceedings for the case go forever onward. In truth, Haynes has quite a “deft hand” in letting the movie showcases all the informative nature of what Bilott undercover with DuPont’s dealings; presenting Dark Waters with a sort of dreariness and gloominess, which certainly does fit the actual events of what transpires. Thus, the film is a slow-burner (more on that below), but it is a good slow-burner, with Haynes delicately (and theatrically suspenseful) peeling back the real-life tale of shocking truth.
To be honest, the narrative being told is perhaps the best thing about Dark Waters. While the movie’s story was published in the 2016 article “The Lawyer Who Become DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich for The New York Times Magazine, the film’s script was penned by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan; adapting the real events for a theatrical presentation. As I said, what I really found fascinating about these movies is the actual subject matter that is covered, with Dark Waters’s main body showing the harsh condition that befell many within Parkersburg, West Virginia and how the corporate giant of DuPont continued to exercise the notion of “looking the other way” by burying / covering up the truth. Of course, I’m talking about the chemical compounds (i.e the “forever chemical” that were made for the binding of Teflon and the various products that used it. As I said, I really didn’t know much about the story of Teflon (again, I was teenager in high school and really didn’t pay attention to the news surrounding it), but what gets exposed in the movie (the truth of DuPont’s negligence and the effect that Teflon held) is quite shocking with some very hard-hitting revelations. I honest didn’t know anything about it as I was literally engrossed in Dark Waters’s story from start to finish. The mishandling of the chemical compounds that effective the lands (water and foliage), the animals that were being killed off from it, and how humans came into contact with the chemical (and how it effected their bodies). Like I said, it’s all quite fascinating and horrifying at the same time. However, that’s only the half of the story being told in Dark Waters, with the film’s script finding a classic “David vs. Goliath”, with Robert Bilott finding the struggle of going up against DuPont and how the trials and tribulations that he must face throughout his case. Whether you like it or not, the big definitely showcases the mind-mentality of taking on a “big corporation” and all the “BS” red tape that they hide behind. By the film’s end, the movie does really great job (in both Haynes’s direction and the feature’s script) on making Robert Bilott’s journey worth it in the end, despite what it costs him on both a professional and personal level.
In the movie’s presentation realm, Dark Waters looks to be a solid feature film. The movie casts a tinted shade of a blue / gray-ish throughout much of the film, projecting a sense of weariness and darkness; something that is befitting Dark Waters’s narrative. Thus, cinematographer work by Edward Lachman definitely sets the overall “mood” of the feature; offering up a cinematic “gloomy” look that seems to fit perfect within the hard-hitting narration being told. Everything else…. from the production designs, to the set decorations, and set locations, and costume designs are all certainly “in line” with the industry standards of today’s filmmaking nuances; creating a well-crafted feature that’s background setting and various aspects looking to be in pristine order. Of course, the movie probably won’t be nominated or memorable for its background aesthetics and nuances (as the feature is more palpable in its storytelling than its filmmaking), but the movie is (overall) a well-made film endeavor.
There are a few problems that had with Dark Waters and, while they don’t derail or take away from the palpable narrative being told, they just draw some criticism in the feature’s execution / proceedings. Perhaps my biggest gripe is the film’s pacing. As I said, the movie’s narrative is quite gripping and engaging, especially since the story being told effects everyone (young or old), but the film is quite a slow-burner endeavor, with Haynes takes his time to unfold the overall case that Bilott’s undertakes and his battle / push-back from DuPont. With the movie clocking at 126 minutes (two hours and six minutes), Dark Waters certainly feels that length; feeling sluggish at times and not enough energy in a few sequences. A bit of stronger editing of scenes together or more “meaty” parts could’ve benefited from this lack of cinematic rhythm to the film. Additionally, the movie does have a few bits and pieces that seem a bit forced. Yes, I do understand what Haynes wants to convey, but it handled in a bit of heavy-handed with a bit of muddled / contrive dialogue that comes off as a bit cheesy and forced. It’s not so hampered in a bad light, but I think that the film’s script could’ve been a bit sharping up int the writing process. There’s also the part of the film’ screenplay (as well as Haynes’s direction) in presenting more of the “behind the scenes” sequences of DuPont rallying against Bilott’s case against them. We (the viewers) see throughout the movie of Bilott find a lot of the information and accusations that he finds about DuPont (what they’ve done and the cover-ups, and their overall negligence of their actions, etc.). The movie showcases a strong introduction into the deceitful “big corporate” mind mentality, but it sort of fades away, with Haynes focusing more on Bilott’s uphill battle (both professionally and personally), which leaves DuPont’s “behind the scenes” elements presented in dialogue lines. I kind of wished that the film’s script could’ve showcased more of their higher ups staging / planning their defense against Bilott.
As a minor complaint, the movie casts a sense of dreariness throughout much of the movie. Of course, I wasn’t expecting (given the source material and its narrative) slapstick comedic levity or something completely “out of place” with the rest of the film, but the movie definitely has a bit of melancholic that pervades the entire feature and could’ve done with a tad of “lighthearted” moments here and there (or at least something to spruce up the film’s drab appeal).
The cast of Dark Waters is a respectable one, with many of the talents involved on this project up for the task for playing the various character in this political eco-drama endeavor. Headlining the film is actor Mark Ruffalo, who plays the movie’s central character of Robert Bilott. Known for his roles in Foxcatcher, Avengers: Endgame, and Spotlight, Ruffalo certainly knows how give a stirring performance; playing up the “everyman” qualities within his persona of Robert Bilott and showcasing a wide range of dramatic beats throughout the feature. It’s quite clear that Haynes wants to fully show the involvement of Bilott’s emotional journey throughout Dark Water’s runtime, which is theatrically visible through Ruffalo’s performance. In the end, while it may not be his most memorable and / or palpable role of his career, Ruffalo’s portrayal of Robert Bilott is sincere and strikingly dramatic within the film’s murky context of truth and duplicity.
Behind Ruffalo, actor Bill Camp (The Night Of and 12 Years a Slave) does an impressive character job in the role of Wilbur Tennant, a farmer who lives in Parkersburg and who persuades Robert Bilott to pursue his case against DuPont. While Camp is quite the character actor (with his previous catalogue of roles in feature films), he certainly makes his mark in Dark Waters: playing the character of Wilbur Tennant with enough seasoned grit and frustration as he tries to prove his point (to Robert) of DuPont’s lies and covers and what has happened to his farm. As a side-note, actress Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises and Ocean’s 8) plays Robert’s wife, Sarah Bilott. I do like Hathaway as an actress as she has proven to be a strong and capable acting talent in Hollywood. However, though her acting is solid in the movie, the character of Sarah just comes across as the commonplace “dutiful / concerned” wife of the husband, who is way over his head. Kind of wished that the film’s script could’ve incorporated more of her into the feature’s narrative.
The rest of the cast is in, more or less, supporting roles throughout the feature, with various characters popping in and out of the film’s narrative to either assist or push against Robert Bilott’s case against DuPont. This includes actor Tim Robbins (Mystic River and The Shawshank Redemption) as Robert’s Bilott’s firm boss Tom Terp, actor Victor Garber (Titanic and Alias) as DuPont’s Chief counsel attorney Phil Donnelly, actor Bill Pullman (Independence Day and While You Were Sleeping) as Joshua Mansky, actor Kevin Crowley (Carol and Daddio) as Larry Winter, actress Mare Winningham (St. Elmo’s Fire and Turner & Hooch) as Darlene Kiger, actor William Jackson Harper (Midsommar and Paterson) as James Ross, and actress Louisa Krause (Billions and Ray Donovan) as Karla. Again, all these acting talents are solid in their respective roles, but some I kind of wished they could’ve expanded upon…. most notable with Garber’s Donnelly. He has a strong introduction that sort of gets pushed aside as the movie goes on. The same can be said with a few others as the movie introduces them quickly (making them feel important to the narrative) and then just drops them to the wayside.
The truth is out there and Robert Bilott stages to go against an industry giant in exposing the shady dealings of DuPont in the movie Dark Waters. Director Todd Haynes’ latest project takes narrative interest in the eco-political drama front; shedding a cinematic light upon DuPont’s depraved business conducts and the shocking revelations that were exposed by Bilott. While the movie does falter in some narrative areas as well as not following through on some of the feature’s supporting characters, the film finds a steady rhythm within its heavy-hitting narrative, Haynes’s direction, a solid cast of acting talents throughout. Personally, I liked this movie. It was definitely something worth watching and certainly delivered on its theatrical “shock and awe” moments within its real-life commentary message. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a favorable “highly recommended” title, especially those who are interested in the real-life story (presented in a cinematic endeavor). In the end, Dark Waters proves to be a successful legal thriller motion picture that certainly depicts one man’s journey of discovering the truth, unmasking a corporate titan, people’s perception of environmental damage, and the deceiving ways industry cover up their messes.
4.2 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: December 6th, 2019
Reviewed On: December 29th, 2019
Dark Waters is 126 minutes long and is rated R for thematic content, some disturbing images, and strong languages