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USA 2019
Directed by
Todd Haynes
127 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Dark Waters

Synopsis: A tenacious attorney (Mark Ruffalo) uncovers a dark secret that connects a growing number of unexplained deaths due to one of the world's largest corporations. In the process he risks his career, his family, and his own life to reveal the truth.

Director Todd Haynes is best-known for the off-beat Dylan biopic, I’m Not There (2007) and his Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven (2002) so it may come as a surprise to see him helming this social justice David and Goliath film in the manner of genre classics such as Silkwood (1983) and Erin Brockovich (2000). Then again Haynes also directed Safe (1995) which starred Julianne Moore as a wife and mother who thinks she’s being poisoned by something unidentifiable in the environment so it’s not that strange after all.

Whilst Silkwood and Erin Brockovich both had marquee names to boost their stories, the star of Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo, is not such a drawcard and Haynes does not give the story an entertaining gloss with his regular cinematographer, Ed Lachman, shooting almost entirely in a wintry blue-grey palette and composer Marcelo Zarvos delivering a suitably moody score. This however is entirely to the film’s credit as we follow the disturbing story’s many twists and turns over a couple of decades.

With so much story to tell Haynes does not waste time setting us up. Within a couple of scenes Rob Bilott, a real-life Cincinnati corporate lawyer, is on his way to the backwoods of West Virginny after farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) bursts into his office and accuses the chemical giant Dupont of dumping chemical waste into Dry Run Creek, the source of the water for his cattle who are all dying. Bilott is shocked by what he sees and convinces his boss, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), to allow him to investigate. Soon David is toe-to-toe with Goliath.

As is typical of the genre, the bulk of the film is given over to Bilott’s battle with Dupont and their vast financial resources. This main thread is bolstered by sub-themes of Bilott’s partners’s reluctance to rock the corporate boat (in one of the seemingly more fancifully written parts Robbin’s Terp passionately supports Bilott) and his relationship with his wife, Sarah (props to Anne Hathaway who is better known for her lightweight films), who gets worn down over the years by her husband’s obsessive commitment to the cause.   

In the central role Ruffalo who was also the film’s principal producer, gives an outstanding performance, undemonstrative but profoundly committed, as the corporate apparatchik turned anti-corporate crusader whilst Haynes, working from a screenplay by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan which was based on a 2016 New York Times Magazine story “The Lawyer Who Became Dupont’s Worst Nightmare”, keeps our attention closely focused on proceedings and the pace and tension taut.

Although the story is, mercifully, set in the past tense (you’ll want to check your cookware when you get home!) as always the film’s core message of eternal vigilance unfortunately never grows old in a world saddled with corporate greed.




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