Dark Waters (2019) – Film Review

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Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins
Certificate: 12A

by Alex Mair

How ironic that Dark Waters hit American cinemas at almost exactly the same time the Democratic primary race was gearing up in Michigan. As Democratic politicians began the courting the voters of Michigan, once the home of the American automobile industry and the mighty autoworkers union, audiences on both sides of the pond are treated to a legal thriller from director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Carol) about one of the many regrettable episodes in that state’s sad history.

Mark Ruffalo plays lawyer Robert Bilott, a corporate attorney for the Ohio-based Taft Stettinius & Hollister law firm. Bilott spends his time at Taft working on behalf of the DuPont Corporation, one of America’s largest and most powerful chemical companies. Bilott has made a lucrative career defending DuPont against every lawsuit and writ going, and doesn’t give a tremendous amount of thought to the social impact the chemical giant may or may not have on the environment.

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“Enjoyable, if conventional”

Then one day West Virginia cattle farmer Wilbur Tennant walks into his office. Wearing a baseball hat, a tatty shirt, a pair of boots and workman’s overalls which have clearly seen better days, Tennant doesn’t look like the typical Taft client, but he’s about to turn Bilott’s life upside down.

Tennant’s problem is this: his cattle are dying. If not dying, then becoming very sick, so sick in fact a number of the cattle are becoming literally mad. Tennant is convinced that his cattle are being poisoned by drinking the water run off from his neighbours, the massive DuPont chemical plant, an industrial complex five times the size of the Pentagon. Needless to say that Billott discovers that DuPont are withholding a deadly secret at their plant, which leads him to question exactly what is being created by DuPont, the company on which he has built his whole career.

Dark Waters is a film straight from the drawer marked ‘Oscar’. We get a highly enjoyable, if conventional, legal thriller. A neat twist on the ‘man on a mission’ story with overtones of Hitchcock and the great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s like All The President’s Men and Chinatown.

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“Grim palate”

Mark Ruffalo is very watchable in the lead role and Tim Robbins is terrific in a supporting role as one of Taft’s most unscrupulous corporate hacks. Maddingly released in March, after the Academy Awards are dished out in February, Dark Waters feels like a Best Picture winner deliberately timed not to be nominated to anything. Special credit must go to Todd Haynes’s cinematographer, Edward Lachman, whose grim palate of greys, browns and dark blues are appropriate to the subject matter.

I watched Dark Waters just before Coronavirus brought the current wave of shut downs towards all public spaces, including cinemas. If the current crisis has taught us anything, it’s that our communities are remarkably vulnerable to catastrophic events. The Coronavirus crisis is so all encompassing, that in contrast, the events depicted in Dark Waters, look minor in comparison. And that is a very sobering thought.

Dark Waters is in cinemas now

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