Film Review: Dark Waters

reviewed by Bilge Ebiri
Dark Waters movie poster

If you just read a synopsis, director Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters might seem like a standard-issue socially conscious legal drama. It’s based on the true story of attorney Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo), who spent the better part of two decades investigating and suing Dupont for dumping toxic sludge into the waters around Parkersburg, West Virginia. The evidence would eventually show that this pollution—caused largely by the production of Teflon, widely used for non-stick cookware—was responsible for all sorts of fatal illnesses in the area, resulting in a $671 million settlement. But it took years to prove it, and for much of that time, Bilott had to face doubters on all sides.

There’s a lot of story to get through, but director Haynes deserves credit for staying focused on the individuals at the center of this drama. He brings great compassion to the scenes involving the townspeople, particularly in the case of the increasingly ill livestock farmer (played by Bill Camp) who initially hires Bilott. These are people who were left behind and ignored by an industrial giant that seemed to not care about their safety. The film also deserves credit for exploring the conflicts within Bilott himself, a corporate attorney whose firm usually represented powerful chemical companies. We see that his crusade turns him into something of an outcast within his profession, and it takes a personal toll as well.

What emerges is a film that operates on multiple levels. It depicts, in some detail, a true-life case of corporate malfeasance and environmental devastation that deserves to be better known. But by focusing on the individuals involved, and laying out a compelling moral vision, Dark Waters also works as a powerful metaphor for those cases when persistence and compassion have pushed society forward.

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