Dark Waters (2019)
As the title suggests, Todd Haynes’ film Dark Waters is no light piece of fluffy escapism, and its tone and weight feel even darker and heavier given the current state of the world. It is a film that forces you to confront sickness, death, and corruption head-on, like Robert Bilott, the protagonist of the story, convincingly underplayed by Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story, you will be both disturbed and riveted.
The film opens on a warm night in Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1975 when a trio of teenagers sneak onto private property, shuck off their clothes, and take a dip in the lake. A few seconds later, they are swiftly kicked out by the authorities, two men in a small power boat bearing the name “West Virginia Containment Services.” The men are in the midst of spraying a mysterious chemical onto the water’s surface as one of them shouts to the other, “Turn off the beam, fool!”, referring to the boat’s spotlight. Whatever they’re doing, it’s meant to be a secret.
Cut to 1998 in Cincinnati, where Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), a recent partner at the corporate law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, is paid an unexpected visit by a farmer from Parkersburg seeking his help. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp)
DARK WATERS AT A GLANCE
This frightening, powerful true story of DuPont Chemical’s poisoning of a small West Virginia town features a strong performance from Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer who uncovers the truth.
The film is well made, but relies on a blue filter effect that’s distracting and ultimately unnecessary.
Composer Marcelo Zavros’ score is particularly effective.
claims that DuPont is poisoning his farm’s creek and thereby killing the animals—and he has proof. He needs a lawyer, though, and he wants Bilott, whose grandma lives in Parkersburg. Only problem is that Bilott defends chemical companies, he doesn’t sue them.
Bilott refuses at first, but a nagging curiosity brings him to Tennant’s farm in West Virginia, and what he sees there cannot be unseen—190 dead cows, people getting sick, and a mysterious landfill belonging to DuPont. Bilott eventually takes the case, as he is the only lawyer willing to face the juggernaut chemical company. Dark suspicions and alarming evidence begin piling up, as does the paperwork Bilott must sift through to uncover the horrible truth. It will take him many years to find it, and at what cost? His career? His family? His life?
Mark Ruffalo gives one of his best performances as “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, which is the title of the New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich from which the screenplay (by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) is adapted. The supporting cast is equally strong and includes Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp (heart-breaking as Wilbur Tennant), and Anne Hathaway, particularly compelling as Bilott’s wife, Sarah.
The music score by Marcelo Zarvos is effective and in one scene, the use of the John Denver hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was particularly eerie juxtaposed with the film’s grim circumstances.
The look of the film, however, is its one weak spot. Nearly every scene is layered with a blue filter, used in an effort to manipulate the tone of the film, to make it feel somber and serious. The effect is overbearing and relentless. When we first see Tennant’s farm, for example, it is a dreary, blue day, and then when we revisit the farm more than a decade later, it looks exactly the same. The weather has not changed one iota. Did Haynes film it all on the same day using the same blue filter? His film does not need to rely on gimmicks. Dark Waters is an excellent movie; well-shot, well-scored, well-edited and well-acted, and these elements alone give us the tone. No filters necessary.
Despite this one qualm, Dark Waters is both frightening and powerful, and stands alongside the best of its genre like Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich. It’s so scary, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after seeing it, you find yourself going through your kitchen cabinets and throwing out some of your non-stick pots and pans. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, Dig a Little Deeper.